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Dianne Reeves and Jason Moran at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia

Victor L. Schermer By

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Ms. Reeves was at the peak of diva performance, relaxed yet vitally alert and concentrated, with a beautiful voice, a broad vocal and dynamic range, and a mastery of jazz timing, inflection, and interpretation.
Dianne Reeves and Jason Moran
Mellon Jazz Fridays, Verizon Hall
The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia, PA
February 2, 2007

This intriguing double bill featuring established jazz diva Dianne Reeves and rising star pianist Jason Moran turned out to be an exciting evening of music which also raised for me as a critic some difficult questions.

Both performers proved to be virtuoso musicians as well as genuine artists, giving their all to create some stunning music. My right brain was pumping out exclamation points and "wows all evening as my left brain was trying to remain objective and detached, and my brain stem was hungry for some "food I wasn't getting. In other words, my psyche was aroused but "split. Not that I wanted to split the scene—far from it: I was quite absorbed by both musicians and their groups. It's just that, despite the program's undeniable merit, the "groove"—that moment of discovery shared between the creative artist and the listener—remained elusive.

The two performances were totally in contrast with one another, and perhaps that was part of the problem. Moran and his group were the opening act. A postmodern approach dominated the set, along with some reference to Moran's new CD, Artist in Residence, based partly on a commission from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The group played a diverse pastiche of themes derived from blues, gospel, popular music, and an old cowboy motif found in every Western flick you've ever seen. Added to this mix were two marvelous soprano vocals beautifully sung by Alicia Moran, including an aria from Puccini's opera Turandot (!) and a variety of recordings of human speech arranged in rhythmic patterns along with some intentional sound distortion. The latter seemed designed to jar one's consciousness and reminded me of Uri Caine's Primal Light, a collage based on Gustav Mahler's music, except that Moran's music fell considerably short of the profundity and genius of Caine's.

Moran's piano technique, however, was phenomenal. Indeed, he developed a wealth of musical ideas, easily enough beyond the usual fare to be very stimulating. But these same "ideas were emotionally dull to this reviewer's ears, which do not resonate well with the kind of funky, punky attitude that was manifest in the music and extended even to Moran's attire. Yet I did appreciate the challenge of his highly energetic, conceptually complex improvisations that represented a unique integration of influences traditional and "far out." What speaks well for Moran is that he is clearly his own man—and he won't let you alone: you are compelled to listen. The man is making a statement. That, plus his musical acuity, accounts, one suspects, for his ability to generate considerable interest in the jazz world.

Very differently, Dianne Reeves and her outstanding accompanists stayed right in the mainstream and gave highly polished, aesthetically appealing renditions of ballads (including a stunning encore, McCoy Tyner's "You Taught My Heart to Sing ), bossa novas, Africana ("No Boundaries ), pops ("Just My Imagination ) and swing—a diverse repertory yet familiar to everyone's ear.

Ms. Reeves was at the peak of diva performance, relaxed yet vitally alert and concentrated, with a beautiful voice, a broad vocal and dynamic range, and a mastery of jazz timing, inflection, and interpretation. It was an absolute pleasure to hear her sing, and her group—especially drummer Greg Hutchinson—were consummate professionals, totally attuned to one another, and providing unwavering solid backup as well as some terrific soloing.

At the same time, Ms. Reeves is so accomplished and polished that at times she edged towards the Frank Sinatra/Barbra Streisand measure of star entertainment that one remembers forever but which distracts from the "imperfect perfection" of jazz at its optimal, where the musicians get completely lost in what they are doing and are not at all concerned with pleasing the audience. Now that's asking a lot, and it doesn't always help the musicians' exchequer, but there it is—my gut reaction. Yet this listener's high expectations didn't take away from a deep appreciation of what Reeves did accomplish, namely, providing her audience with memorable beauty, artistry, and power. (I happen to love Sinatra and Streisand as well, but for different reasons than I'm drawn to Billie Holiday and Johnny Hartman.)

All of which made me think about my role as a critic and reviewer, which has been something of a preoccupation of mine lately (see my recent AAJ article "Some Notes on Jazz Writing and Scholarship ). I see myself as striving to be an objective but constructive supporter of the music, the musicians, and the listeners, as someone seeking to promote deeper understanding of the music. The "thumbs up; thumbs down approach to reviewing falls short of such a purpose. Obviously, if I think something is really "good or "bad I'm going to say so. That's just journalistic honesty. But I'm not going to pretend to be an impartial "judge and jury, pronouncing final judgment on an experience, a work- in-progress, as personal as music.

The reason that such matters came up for me at this particular concert is that I've noticed my perspective has shifted over the past few years since I started writing for this website. Before reviewing the music, I was a naïve, spontaneous lover of jazz. I listened only to what I dug, and I reveled in it. Now, by choice, I go to concerts and clubs on a regular, planned basis. I hear many talented musicians and wonder where they come from: there really are a plethora of incredible performers out there, many simply wanting to be heard. I want, in turn, to be fair to all of them—they deserve nothing less.

But I also know what I love the most, namely, the kind of music-making where the musicians "lose it." That element of risking all for one's art was missing for me at this concert, and it bothered me. At the same time, my respect for the talents of Moran, Reeves, and their musicians remains undiminished, and I'd give anything to hear Ms. Reeves do her thing in a small club on the east end of town (though I would understand her perspective if she never wants to go that route again!). God bless the child that's got her own.




Personnel:

Jason Moran and the Bandwagon: Jason Moran, piano; Tarus Mateen, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums.

Dianne Reeves and Trio: Peter Martin, musical director and piano; Reuben Rogers, bass; Greg Hutchinson, drums.

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