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Dianne Reeves Boettcher Concert Hall Denver, CO January 25, 2014
Let's get right to the most important fact: Dianne Reeves is the greatest living jazz singer. And she gives the dead ones a run for their money too. Pick any aspect: phrasing, intonation, soul, emotion, interpretation, range, control, improvisation. She has it all. And she knows how to use it. Those last three on the list, in particular, conspire to create remarkable and breathtaking jumps of an octave or more during her improvisational scat solos. That's just one example of why Reeves is such a pleasure to hear.
For Saturday night's concert with the Colorado Symphony, Reeves brought along her favorite jazz quartet: Peter Martin, piano and musical director; Romero Lubambo, acoustic and electric guitar; Reginald Veal, acoustic and electric bass and Terreon Gully, drums. The virtuosity of these musicians matched Reeves.' Martin, Lubambo and Veal were each afforded solos and they each took the opportunity to create inventive, delightful and frequently awe inspiring improvisations.
Only Gully was left out of the solo limelight. In fact, he was forced to keep his considerable talents in check. I've seen him in concert before without a symphonic harness and the main question I kept asking myself was how a guy with only two arms and two legs could create such complicated and intense polyrhythms. I kept looking for an extra pair of arms or an extra leg or two, but he was able to seemingly play the parts of two or three drummers with standard equipment. Unleashing that sort of manic talent in the midst of a symphony orchestra would be a little like turning loose the Tasmanian Devil (Warner Bros. cartoon version) in the middle of a church service. So instead of disrupting the proceedings, he kept his playing understated and tasteful.
Now, before we discuss the symphony, I'll admit my bias. Let's just say that if I want to listen to Frank Sinatra, I'd rather hear him in front of the swingin' Basie band than the string laden Nelson Riddle Orchestra. Here's the problem: the essence of jazz is the swing and no matter who the players are, it's simply impossible for a group of 70 or 80 musicians to swing. It's just too unwieldy. The result, therefore, is a sweetening of something that doesn't really need it. Don't get me wrong, I like syrup, but on pancakes.
One last complaint before we return to discussing the good parts: the acoustics of Boettcher Concert Hall. They've been a problem for decades. The hall is just too lively which results in a muddy sound. The music bounces around so much it's often difficult to hear distinct instruments or the lyrics of a singer, especially when most or all of the orchestra is playing. (Was that pure maple syrup or good old Log Cabin? Hard to tell.)
Actually, the acoustics can be a double edged sword. Many years ago I saw the Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin Big Band at Boettcher. When the whole band played, the sound was muddled and indistinct. Toward the end of the show, however, Tabackin walked to the front of the stage with his tenor sax and played all alone with no amplification. Suddenly, it was like he was standing three feet away. Every detail of his playing was sharp and clear. The effect was spine chilling. Likewise, on Saturday night, Reeves put down her mic for Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain." She walked to the front of the stage and just let it all out. The result was even more riveting. Reeves' voice easily filled the 2,700 seat hall and every syllable came through in detail. The symphony sat out and the jazz quartet provided a quiet, delicate accompaniment.
"Don't Explain" was a highlight for another reason. Reeves introduced the song by explaining that she first heard it many years ago and was astonished that Holiday could sing those lyrics. She confessed that the song had been "messing" with her for a long time and it took many years for her to be able to perform it. The story behind the song is that Holiday wrote it after her husband came home one night with lipstick on his collar. Indeed, the lyric bluntly states, "I know you cheat," followed by "Right or wrong don't matter, when you're with me, sweet." Whew.
The set list was composed primarily of jazz standards with a few "pop" tunes and even a blues thrown in for good measure. Most of the newer tunes were taken from Reeves' forthcoming album Beautiful Life (Concord, 2014). These included Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" and Bob Marley's "Waiting in Vain." Despite the familiarity of these two, Reeves turned them into completely new tunes with the recognizable melodies only occasionally drifting by. Another noteworthy new tune was "Wild Rose," which also appears on Beautiful Life and was written by Esperanza Spaulding.
For many years, Reeves has bounced back and forth between the standards and jazzing up more contemporary songs. In the past, she has covered Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes," Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" and the Temptations "Just My Imagination," among others. Her new album and Saturday night's show continued that trend. "One for My Baby" was another highlight with Reeves applying her remarkable vocal talents to the bluesy standard and wringing new and soulful sounds from the traditional idiom.
The symphony was professional and played its parts impeccably, of course. It was of greatest effect on the ballads when the swing wasn't quite as important and a lush background seemed to fit in better than with the more upbeat tunes. Even on those, the symphony had its moments, particularly when the brass section punctuated some phrases at key points.
One important aspect about the symphony and the concert hall is that they're elegant. Dianne Reeves is a class act and the setting Saturday night highlighted this. Reeves grew up in Denver and, after leaving for L.A. to begin her music career, she's now back and calls the city her home. It's easy to see why she would want to put on a show like this for the hometown crowd. And who can blame her?
One last point about the strings; which Sinatra recordings sold more, the Basie recordings or Riddle? You don't need a Billboard chart to solve that riddle.