Commencement 2003 - Voice of Hope/Dianne Reeves

Voice of Hope

A vocalist finds her stride in the middle of her career.

Dianne Reeves may not sell as many records as Norah Jones or Diana Krall, but it wouldn't be surprising if tomorrow's history books call Reeves the queen of this era of jazz singing. Over the course of her 25-year career, Reeves has used her versatile voice to reawaken aging standards with a sound that is both contemporary and classic, composed a string of songs that are popular with listeners and challenging to musicians, and recorded and performed with many of today's leading jazz artists, such as McCoy Tyner, Christian McBride, Toots Thielemans, and Terrence Blanchard.

In addition, Reeves's two Grammy Awards in the past three years point to a mid-career rise, one that comes just a few years after the jazz world lost Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, and several other legendary vocalists. Whether or not Reeves sees herself following in the footsteps of those singers, she says she draws inspiration from the way they did things.

"The most important thing in the tradition is to thine own self be true," said Reeves over the telephone from her home in Denver, just prior to leaving for the 2003 Commencement. "That's what all of them did. And their music was very much influenced by the times that they lived in. Like mine is. When you come out of that tradition of going inside and finding out how you view the world specifically, and uniquely, and translating through your life experiences, it can come off very differently."

Music without Boundaries

With her own worldview as her guide, Reeves has made music based in swing, but with influences from pop, r&b, folk, and African styles. While she dips heavily into the traditional jazz repertoire on her recordings, she also seeks out composers not often associated with jazz, such as Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen.

While watching the commencement concert, Reeves realized Berklee students shared her passion for musical diversity.

"One of the things that struck me, everyone's doing all this music up here, rock and roll and jazz. Music without boundaries, the way the world should be," Reeves told the audience after stepping on stage that night. And then Reeves knocked down more boundaries by joining Berklee students in an improvised performance of a blues in the key of G.

There was a warmth and openness to Reeves's onstage presence. After counting off the tune for a student quartet, she sang two choruses of impromptu lyrics, scatted for two choruses, and then asked students to join in. Six students took turns before handing it back to Reeves, who sang and directed the band to a conclusion. Reeves's leadership and striking showmanship made the music pleasurable for both student performers and the audience. It also underscored her desire to create music that makes people feel welcome.

"It really comes from my experience with my family," Reeves said. "Any time we ever had any kind of family gathering, anybody that wasn't a part of the family always left feeling like they were a part of something because it was always very inclusive of everyone. That's how I view the stage. I like (my band) to be comfortable, in a space where we can let our hair down."

Reeves describes the way she works with her trio—pianist Peter Martin, bassist Reuben Rogers '97, and drummer Gregory Hutchinson—as intimate and collaborative. After recording and touring with an orchestra in support of her 2001 release, The Calling: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan, Reeves began working steadily with the trio and decided to record her new CD with them. Reeves plans to release A Little Moonlight this summer.

"I wanted to do something very up close and intimate, love songs," said Reeves. "I really like (the band's) spirit, and I thought as we continued to develop and trust each other, it got better and better. So I wanted to include that, very simply. It's a very quiet record with them. I found that when you do a lot of different music and you go back to a smaller setting, it's bigger than it was before."

She also picked the right producer for a gentle record: Arif Mardin '61, who was the man behind the multiple Grammy Award-winning Norah Jones record last year, the pared-down Come Away with Me.

"He has a long history in jazz music and I really respect his musicality," said Reeves of Mardin. "And he's easy, because he wants you to do your thing." Mardin also helped Reeves celebrate her first honorary doctor of music degree by attending events throughout Berklee's commencement weekend.


University of Experience

After going to college in Colorado for a year in the 1970s, Reeves moved to Los Angeles to start her music career. She began a long-running musical partnership with pianist and composer Billy Childs in 1978, one centered on composing, arranging, and experimenting with jazz by meshing it with music of the day, including fusion.

She recorded her first album as a leader in the early 1980s, but found that she still had a lot to learn. Some of her biggest musical lessons came throughout that decade, Reeves said, during tours and other projects led by vocalist Harry Belafonte. Belafonte featured Reeves as a lead singer, incorporating her into a band composed of musicians from around the world, masters of styles ranging from calypso to jazz. The experiences taught her the value of democratic music making and the power of a simple song that possesses a strong melody and a clear storyline.

"We did these very simple love songs and other things that were about being connected with the earth and life in a very, very simple way," said Reeves. "After that I started to seek songs, and started to be myself, vocally. I began to really say the lyric and to use each song as a different landscape, to be respectful of what the song was bringing."

The industry liked Reeves's approach, and she became the first vocalist signed to the revitalized Blue Note label, in 1987. She has recorded nine records for Blue Note and several for EMI, all of them receiving some measure of critical and commercial acclaim. At the same time, Reeves found that she was struggling to make all of her musical dreams come true, a state she described as "swimming upstream." But upon reaching a milestone birthday, she began looking at her accomplishments and dreams with a fresh view.

"When I turned 40, something happened," said Reeves. "I realized everybody had their own unique divine flow. And when I turned around in that current, I started going places I couldn't ever have dreamed of. And doing things I didn't even think of. So that's where I am right now, and my music and voice reflects the peace of mind that I have in my life right now...I just do what I really love and it works."

Among the Berklee alumni Reeves has played with are Jacky Terrasson '86, Greg Osby '83, Kevin Eubanks '79, Terri Lyne Carrington '83, and Marvin "Smitty" Smith '81. "They're really great musicians," Reeves said. "I wish that I would have had an opportunity to go. I didn't even know about it. Everybody comes out a well-rounded musician."

You can add to that list the ten student musicians who performed with Reeves on commencement eve. To them and all the other graduates now beginning their music careers, Reeves says focus on "the journey."

"Everybody has something very special and unique that they have to say," Reeves said. "Success doesn't necessarily mean that you'll have celebrity and lots of money. But success in completing ideas and understanding music and defining it in a way that really represents your voice is very important."