Talking of soul, you’ve also got Lalah Hathaway on your new album…
I used to go and see her father (Donny). He used to come to Denver where I grew up and there was this really cool club called Ebbet’s Field and I loved it because these musicians were there and they were all very, very unique. Donny was soulful but he was also making stuff up in the moment. When I heard Lalah’s voice, which is very reminiscent of her father’s, it catches you off guard, especially if you knew her father’s music. But she takes it to a whole other place and she’s an extraordinary young musician. So I was very honoured when she said yeah, I want to do it ‘cos I did this concert at Carnegie Hall and I invited her. It was Dianne Reeves and Friends. And that was the night that George Duke was there. George went to the studio before we did the gig at Carnegie Hall and afterwards, after the concert, we went in the studio with Lalah to record the record.
Why did you choose to sing with her Bob Marley’s ‘Waiting In Vain’?
I just love it.
Did you feel that you had a responsibility to do something different with the song?
Yeah. I believe that he put his music out there for us and so you can’t be him but you can reference him. I have love and respect for his spirit but you have to make the song your own.
(Dianne with her cousin, the late George Duke)
You mentioned your late cousin, George Duke, who also features on the album. His passing was very sad – what memories do you have of him?
I think about him every day. He was just one of these kinds of people that when people met him or had some kind of interaction with him, they felt like they knew him. They walked away like they were his friend. That was the thing that was so beautiful about him, he would actually remember people for years and they would come back and he’d say, “Yeah, I remember, I met you at so-and-so.” He was extraordinary. A lot of times George would be in the studio working on other artists… I’d go to LA and just go in to the studio and hang out and he would always greet you with all this love and sincerity. And when I worked with him I loved it because he’s somebody who possesses impeccable musicianship and a very, very broad range and his own sound. But when he worked with artists it would be about the artists’ sound. He didn’t have an ego like that, though he could have had if he’d wanted to because he could do everything. The thing that I love about him is that he went from Frank Zappa, Cannonball Adderley, straight up funk and classical music to Brazilian music and everything in between. And he was just magnificent at all of it.
Yes, he was very eclectic. It must run in the family.
It was the times, you know. He was the one that gave me license to be myself and said “it’s just music.” I was out in LA doing studio work and people were calling me in to do things that were different. I loved it. So I was a chameleon and he said: “be that: that is who you are.”
Going right back to the beginning, at what age did you feel an attraction towards music?
Oh gosh, very early on. I don’t even remember when it wasn’t in my life.
I believe you came from a musical family…
Yes, lots of musicians, from blues singers and players to classical musicians.
How did you start off as a musician yourself? Did you set out to be a singer?
No, like in most houses, there was a piano in ours (laughs). So I started out on piano. When I was in junior high school I was singing but that was what I just did. Piano was what I was studying. And it just so happened that my middle school teacher was also my piano teacher and she taught choir at school and we did this very special program. We were some of the first black kids to be bussed (into racially-integrated schools). It was a different kind of time. I remember that she felt that the best way to pull everybody together was for this young student body to come together and write a school presentation that represented how they were feeling. She was very, very helpful with it and there was this young woman who was supposed to sing Aretha Franklin’s ‘Spirit In The Dark.’ She didn’t know that I sang but she said can you help me? Were out in the hallway and I started singing it and my piano teacher, Miss Williams, was like: “who was that?” She didn’t know that I was singing like that. And they said: “oh that’s Dianne, Miss Williams.” So that’s how I started singing. I still studied piano but I started studying voice as well. And from that point on I knew that this was what I wanted to do.
What drew you to jazz?
My uncle (Charles Burrell). He was with the Colorado Symphony at the time but he grew up in Detroit and was a great bassist. He would do jazz gigs in the evening and a lot of really great musicians came through Denver. He would invite me to come up and be a part of it and I loved the music because early on I really realised that jazz was like an intimate conversation that was going on musically. Music had taken on this other kind of language to me and I wanted to be a part of it. I liked the freedom of the music. So I would do gigs with him and it just went on from there.
The legendary trumpeter, Clark Terry (pictured) became a mentor to you when you were a teenager. How did that come about?
When I was in high school I was part of a jazz band that, I have to say, was very hard for me to get into. They said we don’t have singers but I kept pushing and I ended up being in it. So then arrangements and things were made. But anyway our band won a city-wide competition that allowed us to go to the big jazz convention, which was called The National Association of Jazz Educators. Clark Terry has always been an educator. I was singing and evidently a friend of his said, you’ve got to come and hear this girl. So he came and loved it and said give me your information. He said, “I’m going to be in touch with you,” and I said okay. I went back and I told my uncle: I said this guy, Clark Terry, who is an older musician and plays trumpet, is going to call me. It turned out that my uncle and Clark were in an army band together and they went back, way, way back. So he called Clark and was like “oh my God!” So Clark stayed in my life and then I started doing gigs with him. This was amazing because I always tell people that this was the most fertile soil that any young person can ever hope to be in because there were all these masterful people in this band like (bassist) George Duvivier and Major Holly would be on drums, and there was Jimmy Rowles, of course, who played with Billy Holiday, and Roland Hanna on piano. So these were the musicians that I was working with when I worked Clark and I was sixteen.
And when you were still quite young you went on to work with both Sergio Mendes and Harry Belafonte. What was the experience of working with those two guys like?
I was living in Los Angeles and the way I got there was that three of the members from Earth, Wind & Fire were from Denver, where I grew up. I grew up listening to them. They were trying to start a band and they wanted a female singer and their friends told them about me so I ended up going to Los Angeles. It was cool because George (Duke) was there so I had family in Los Angeles. Larry Dunn (Earth, Wind & Fire’s keyboard player) used to work with this group called Caldera and Larry used to say of me “she can do anything.” Flora Purim was supposed to do the Caldera session but she wasn’t available so they brought me in. So that kind of started it. I hadn’t been listening to Brazilian music but there was something about it that was familiar and I could navigate the music in a way that felt like it was mine. So then after that I started working with a lot of different Latin groups and jazz groups in the Los Angeles area. That’s when a friend of mine told me that I should audition for Sergio Mendes because he was looking for a singer. I went to the audition. I had learned ‘How Insensitive’ (the classic bossa nova song written by Antonio Carlos Jobim) in Portuguese from a Flora Purim album. But my Portuguese sucked (laughs). I remember Sergio listening to me and at the end he said: “I don’t know what the words were you just sang but you’ve got the gig.” So he introduced me to the music of Brazil in a very deep way – he was always giving me recordings to listen to and just sharing the rich music. Through him I met (songwriter/guitarist) Dori Caymmi and we ended up working a lot together. It was just his whole different world.
Later on I started working with Harry Belafonte who had this band that was like the United Nations. The day that we rehearsed he said “I don’t want you to do arrangements, I want you to feel arrangements.” He had songs that were ideas for what it was he presented on stage and I came to get acquainted with the music of people like Joan Armatrading – because Harry loved Joan Armatrading – but I had never heard of her. So I worked with Harry and I just jumped all in her music and music from all over the world. It was more kind of folk-oriented but he said just make it yours so I did and we selected a bunch of songs, worked with musicians – some from Africa, the Caribbean and just everywhere. So when we went out on the road his whole thing was if you don’t leave the people standing then we haven’t done our job and we need to go back and rework things. So he was like that and it was like a workshop. I worked with him for three years and it was great.