It’s eight a.m. on a damp and rather dismal autumn day in London and for American jazz singer, DIANNE REEVES – who, the previous night, performed two sets at a sold out Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in the heart of Soho – there’s no time for a well-earned lie-in. Instead, being a real trooper, she answers the call of duty and graciously gives time to SJF’s Charles Waring, who’s interviewing the chanteuse during her three-day residency this week at the UK’s most famous jazz venue.
Reeves’ voice – which has graced over twenty albums in her own name since the early ’80s – has a sleepy huskiness to it and though occasionally during our conversation she audibly stifles a yawn, the singer proves to be warm and loquacious interviewee and, happily for this writer, is seemingly unaffected by her previous night’s exertions. “It went very well,” she says matter-of-factly, reflecting on her opening night at London’s legendary jazz club. “I don’t really do any clubs so it’s really cool because I love the vibe in it. It’s like a little theatre that’s very intimate and the people come to hear the music. The sightlines in are there very good for everybody so it’s great…and I’m not saying this just because I’m here at Ronnie Scott’s. I like the atmosphere of it because it reminds me of the atmosphere that I came up in. I love the closeness of the audience and there’s an intimacy that happens that just can’t happen in great big venues. It’s very unique in and I guess you can feel the history of the club as well…”
The 58-year-old Detroit-born/Denver-raised singer – who’s worked with bona fide jazz giants such as Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner and Stanley Turrentine – is undoubtedly considered one the greatest jazz singers working today. In a fascinating in-depth interview she talks at length about her life and music…
What musicians have you brought over with you for your Ronnie Scott’s gigs?
I have Peter Martin on piano, Reginald Veal on bass, Terreon Gully on drums, and Romero Lombardo on guitar. What I like about them is that they play everything. They’re reminiscent of the musicians that I grew up with because at one time I used to live in Los Angeles where all the jazz musicians would be in the studio and played on all these huge pop records and R&B records and did all of this other stuff, like playing on Brazilian and Cuban records. So I love being able to have musicians that have that kind of facility.
They’re versatile and eclectic, then – rather like you.
I like to just look at it as music because it’s kind of the environment that I grew up in. So it’s just music (laughs). I don’t think in terms of genres. I think in terms of having an array and a broad range of colours to choose from.
Talking of colour, your latest album, ‘Beautiful Life,’ has a wonderful front cover adorned with many colours. What is the background story behind that record? Does it have an underlying theme?
Yeah, the underlying theme is really that whole thing of collaboration and I loved it because I wanted to do a record that had more groove-oriented elements at the same time as having a jazz element there. I started talking to (drummer/producer) Terri Lyne Carrington about it and she was saying to me ideas and that’s how we got together. I wanted to do this and invite people because I realised that a lot of the younger musicians were really, really listening to and influenced by the music that I grew up on. I thought that it would be a great bridge or a great opportunity for us to come together that way and so it happened. Terri has one foot planted firmly in jazz and the other in this music of today so she was like the perfect person to do it.
What’s her strength, then, for you as a producer?
That she just came up at a time where she’s worked with all the finest jazz musicians but she’s done a lot of other stuff too. So he just has this versatility. George Duke was like that. I loved working with him because he’d do everything.
Your choice of songs is very eclectic and ranges from Ani DiFranco to Harold Arlen and Bob Marley. Does that reflect your own listening tastes?
Yeah – that’s what my collection of music sounds or looks like.
Keyboardist Robert Glasper appears on the album with you all the cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks-written ‘Dreams.’ What was he like to work with?
Great. He had the idea for ‘Dreams’ and when he sent it to me, first of all, I couldn’t believe that he knew the song and I thought, okay, and I always loved it but when he wrote the arrangement you hear the lyric in a different kind of way. It’s more like sage advice (laughs). And I loved the freedom of the interlude that he put in. So when he came in and did it we just had a ball in the studio.
You’ve also got Gregory Porter on the album, the singer whose career is in the ascendant at the moment. What was it like collaborating with him?
We had done shows together (before that). Gregory Porter reminds me of the soul singers that I grew up around. He has all of that but a new thing too and the church is very much in it so he takes me home. I love him because people across generations listen to him. We did a song called ‘Satiated’ and it was so funny because there were elements that I sang and he picked up on them and he’d say: “What!? What did you do then?” And I was like hey, dude, we listened to the same music.
There’s a different kind of male singer who you also collaborated with, Raul Midon. What was he like to work with?
We’ve done a lot of gigs together, too, and Raul is so amazing – the way that he hears music and this one-man band thing that he has. He’s to the point and his lyrics, like Gregory’s, are very poignant and strong. I love the fact that he explores his voice, his instrument, and he can do anything with it so when we did ‘Tango,’ I said look, this is all vocalese and I’ve heard you do your thing so I sent it to him – we weren’t in the studio together – and he sent it back and I heard it and said yeah, that’s what I’m talking about!
Esperanza Spalding is another person on the up at the moment. What was she like to work with on ‘Wild Rose’?
Oh, Espe is so cool. I just love her. She’s down to earth and once again is another young musician that we’ve done things together. I went and asked her to write me a song. We talked about it and it was the Christmas before last and she gave me the song (‘Wild Rose’) and I just couldn’t believe it. I loved it.
The album opens with a great version of Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Want You.’ How much does Marvin Gaye mean to you?
A lot (laughs). Yeah, a whole lot because you know Marvin Gaye was a great singer who, as you know, was so honest. I remember listening to him. I was too young early on to really, really understand the depth of some of the things that he was singing about in terms of love. But I remember when the ‘What’s Going On’ album came out and I couldn’t get over it because it was a seamless album that just went places and it took you on a journey and it was very much the backdrop of what was going on in America at that time. Young men were coming in from the Vietnam War and they were going through it and there was a lot of change socially and politically in the country. There was a lot of conversation (about those issues) and here was this album that was exactly that but put into music. It had these jazz overtones and I would hear him talk later about it ‘cos in the ’70s when I moved to Los Angeles my boyfriend played in his band. I would go to their rehearsals and just hang out and watch him develop things and be in the moment and I got this idea of being able to sketch things out but to keeping it open enough for improvisation… There was this conversation between him and his musicians and it was very jazz-like. He loved jazz music and he talked to me about Sarah Vaughan. He loved Sarah Vaughan. So I started the record with that song because Marvin Gaye was this artist who was an R&B artist but who was also steeped in jazz and this is kind of what this record is about.
How much is soul music part of your musical psyche?
It’s everything. It’s what I grew up on; it’s what I sang as a young person between the church and the bands I had you know before my career took off and I think jazz music gave me a freedom. It’s like jazz was a passport or a portal into everything. You appreciate it because in the black experience it was still very much a part of the tree.