At seventeen, she was a wide-eyed high school girl with a silken voice, shyly sitting in at smoky Denver clubs with local mentors like Joe Keel, Dee Minor and Nat Yarbrough. Twenty-five years later, she is a Grammy winner who's played the White House twice, has eleven albums in the bins and tens of thousands of fans in concert halls from New York to Rome to Tokyo. The cognoscenti judge her to be a rightful heiress to the glories of the great jazz singers.
Certainly, Dianne Reeves is an international siren who combines Sarah Vaughan's harmonic rigor, Ella Fitzgerald's tireless energy and Carmen McRae's art with lyrics. But she's also a Denver homegirl. So despite all the accolades that have come her way in recent years, she's singularly pleased to be performing with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra this Friday and Saturday night in Boettcher Concert Hall. Reeves moved back to Denver nine years ago, but her career takes her on the road six to eight months a year, so these are her first dates here since the mid-'90s.
"Oh, yes, this is special," she says. "It's been a long, slow climb, but as I look back on my life, I think that's been good, because I've been able to come to an understanding about a lot of things. Singing here at home reminds me of that."
Dianne Reeves, with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra
Boettcher Concert Hall, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 1036 14th Street
7:30 p.m. Friday, April 6, and Saturday, April 7, $20-$40, 303-986-8742
In February, Reeves won her first Grammy, for a CD called In the Moment (Blue Note), a fluent collection of jazz standards such as "Afro Blue" and "Love for Sale" as well as Reeves originals, including "Come In" and "The Best Times" -- a nostalgic tribute to the strength and caring of her late grandmother, Denverada Howard. Reeves's fellow nominees in the jazz-vocalist category included Kurt Elling, Nneena Freelon and Dee Dee Bridgewater, so the award was hard won. But she's never been a singer to rest on her laurels -- or to repeat herself. "Music is about the doing," she says. "The Grammy has made it a little easier and made more people aware of who I am, but you have to move forward."
For now, that also entails moving backward, in a sense -- back into the realm of the jazz giant who first inspired her. Reeves's latest CD is The Calling, a celebration of Sarah Vaughan, and that's the material she'll perform at Boettcher -- vintage Vaughan anthems such as "Fascinating Rhythm," "Speak Low" and "Embraceable You." Until recently, Reeves says, her voice wasn't ready to address this daunting canon. But the Divine One has been a commanding presence since the beginning.
"Early on, in my junior and senior years at George Washington High School," she recalls, "they had a really wonderful jazz program. It was primarily for instrumentalists, but they let me come in. I knew I had to find my own repertoire, but my uncle, Charles Burrell (the longtime Denver Symphony bassist) thought I needed a jazz education. So in the midst of my hormones rising and racing and the influences of Motown music, Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown and all those things, my uncle gave me some jazz records."
The one that changed her life featured Vaughan singing over a lush blanket of strings conducted by Michel Legrand. "When I heard her voice," Reeves says, "I suddenly had a totally different understanding of the human voice, which is the first instrument, and its ability to do many things with color and timbre and emotion. She opened the door for me."
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Since that crucial moment, Reeves has also absorbed the storytelling skill of McCrae, the radical improvisations of Betty Carter ("an explosive influence") and the heartrending directness of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone en route to finding her own voice. At eighteen, she was working with legendary trumpeter Clark Terry. At nineteen, she was living in Los Angeles, collaborating with pianist Billy Childs and soaking up Brazilian, African and Latin American innovations. Today she is a polymath with a range of three octaves and, more important, a range of emotion that comes from having lived some of the lyrics. She's the featured vocalist with the neo- conservative Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, led by Wynton Marsalis, but she's also contemplating a CD of highly experimental jazz tunes and her first classical album.
"Jazz is my foundation," Reeves explains, "what allows me to go into other places to find myself. When people call me a jazz singer, I have no problem with that, but I like to call what I do 'music without boundaries.' I take popular songs that I really love, by great writers, and give them jazz sensibility. That's always been with me. At the same time, you have to address who you are and where the world is, based on experiences."
Said another way: Reeves has traveled a long road since a junior high choir teacher named Bennie Williams overheard her singing in a school corridor, since Clark Terry caught her at sixteen at a jazz conference in Chicago, since she synthesized half a dozen great jazz singers, a dozen instrumentalists and her own interior life into one of the warmest, most supple voices in jazz.
"In the beginning," she says, "you have to know it's freedom that you want, freedom that you'll go for all the way." At last, she's found it.