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Sound of Blackness


By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com


Don’t do like I did. Don’t sleep on the far-ranging and deeper-than-deep talent of Dianne Reeves.

Long time ago, I acquired one of Dianne’s CD entitled
Art + Survival. As far as I was concerned, this was the pinnacle of her work. A beautiful marriage of insightful and socially aware content with exquisite artistry. 


This was about "art" in a commercially-oriented pop world and about "survival" within an oppressive and exploitative society. This was an amazing recording. 


Dianne’s voice is breathtaking in both its sustained beauty, especially on the ballads and in the gambits she dares. She successfully takes tremendous risks with her vocal technique, and each time hits the mark on point.

And content-wise, this is a Nina Simone type statement. Bold, completely forward, no apologies and no prisoners taken. Ms Reeves is a full out bad, beautiful strong Black woman.

And I guess, paradoxically, the brilliance of Art + Survival blinded me and kept me from fully appreciating the full range of her greatness. I would listen to a few other of Dianne’s albums, but none of the ones I heard had the social consistency and total artistic daring of Art + Survival. So I cherished the one CD and only occasionally would dip into the others. But that was a mistake that caused me to overlook Art + Survival’s live twin - New Morning.
Born October 23, 1956 in Detroit but raised in Denver by her grandmother, Dianne’s first major recognition as a jazz artist came from trumpeter Clark Terry who was impressed when he heard her sing in a high school band in 1974. Terry became her mentor.

In 1976, Dianne started a long apprenticeship, working first with Eduardo del Barrio in his Latin band Caldera. Dianne also worked with pianist Billy Childs and had a stint singing with Sergio Mendes. From 1983 to 1986, she toured with Harry Belafonte as a lead singer. In 1987, she was the first vocalist to sign to Blue Note Records.

Beginning with her album In The Moment in 2001, Dianne Reeves achieved what no other vocalist has ever done: a string of three successive Grammys for best jazz vocalist. In 2006 she picked up a fourth Grammy for her soundtrack album Good Night, And Good Luck. She is perennially picked as the best living jazz vocalist.

"The powerful but mellow alto of Ms Reeves wafts through the film, as ubiquitous and atmospheric as the smoke from Murrows' cigarettes," says The New York Times.

As far as I am concerned, her only competition as a jazz vocalist is Cassandra Wilson and I feel fortunate that I live in a time period when both are performing and recording. A recent review of her recording catalogue finds me leaning toward Dianne as a pure jazz vocalist.
Three characteristics stand out for me. First is the beauty of her instrument. Like they say in Latin, it’s “alter,” which means both high and deep—a perfect definition of her range and the way she uses her voice. “One More Time” and “Anthem” are evidence enough to convince any skeptic.

Second, Dianne Reeves is a conscious artist, deeply spiritual (“Old Souls”) and also socially concerned (“Endangered Species”). Dianne is an artist who has remained on the frontlines throughout a long and distinguished career. It takes a tremendous amount of commitment to stay strong for as long as she has.

Third is her deep embrace of Latin American and African traditions. You hear it leaping out of her music at a level usually only achieved by instrumentalists of the highest caliber. It’s not just the rhythms, it’s also the lyrics. She is a direct descendant of Dizzy Gillespie responding to Chano Pozo with Afro-Cuban religious chants. Dianne has obviously studied the Afro-religious music and not just the popular music of the
Caribbean, Brazil and West Africa.
Dianne Reeves can scat with the best but she is doing far more than just making up some sounds that sound like Afro-Cuban or Brazilian chants, she is actually using an alternative liturgy.


 At times it’s almost as if she is channeling a houngan. Her utterances are so fluid, so captivating. Oddly enough, the best example of this is on her version of “Summertime,” which she calls “Summertimes.” She uses the plural perhaps to indicate the diverse sources/diverse summers her rendition both draws on and offers.

“Summertimes” is taken from New Morning, one of a number of live recordings Dianne Reeves has done. New Morning is significant for a couple of reasons. A large portion of the material is from Art + Survival. The band is a basic piano, bass, drums trio but the kicker is: the musicians are all native New Orleanians. David Torkonowsky on piano, Chris Severin on bass, and Herlin Riley on the drums. I highly recommend New Morning.

One listen to “Summertimes” and you know you’re in the presence of some other kind of greatness, some obviously Afro-centric type of greatness. I really like how Dianne takes her time and crafts a performance that goes through different moods. It is a spirited finale of a hugely successful set recorded in
Paris, France
in 1997, three years after Art + Survival.
As for her jazz chops, check out what Dianne does with the standard “Body And Soul.” This the John Coltrane influence, probably second-hand through Dexter Gordon. Until Trane, "Body And Soul" was mostly a ballad or mid-tempo song.


Coltrane came with that uptempo, Afro-flavor burnout. Dexter took a cue from Trane and came up with a hip vamp on which he built a distinctive version that in turn had been adopted by a number of musicians, vocalists as well as instrumentalists. 

Dianne’s “Body And Soul” is a killer. She is stretching out; opens with long tones but then cuts loose with enchanting scatting during her solo. This is jazz, what jazz ought to be. Her choice of notes is an impeccable high-wire act and her rhythmic surefootedness makes a mountain goat look clumsy.

If you get Art + Survival and New Morning you will have an advanced course in jazz vocals that is hard to match. Do like I eventually did: wake up and get with the greatness of Dianne Reeves.


Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop. 


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