Lady be good

Dianne Reeves isn’t generally thought of as a songwriter, but when it came to wrapping up her new album, she knew that the closing statement she envisioned had yet to be written. So she wrote it herself, with more than a little inspiration from her mom.

That track, “Today Will Be a Good Day,” is a neo-gospel stomp that sounds like it could have been recorded at Sun Studio with the Million Dollar Quartet. It’s an aberration on When You Know, an album of smooth, airy jazz and pop material, but it’s definitely the song that means the most to Reeves.

She credits the song’s carpe-diem title to her mother, Vada Swanson, a retired, trumpet-playing nurse who instilled an unyielding sense of optimism in her gifted daughter.

“She’s a woman of 83 and she has all of those things `in the song`,” says Reeves, 51, a Detroit native who grew up in Denver. “My mother drives and she’s fiercely independent. A friend of ours is sick and she’s on her way over here now to help cook. When I come home off the road, she’s like, ‘Can I go to the grocery store for you?’ Just amazing.

“I look at her and say, ‘That’s the secret, that’s the key.’ One good thing is that we all have this will and we can make a choice. It was the last idea for the record, and I thought it was very appropriate
for it.”

“Today Will Be a Good Day” caps an album that Reeves envisioned as an interpretive song cycle spanning one woman’s life. It’s a concept inspired by an untitled, unfinished Gustav Klimt painting she saw a few years ago at a Vienna, Austria, museum, a piece that depicted a woman’s journey from childhood to maturity. Reeves opens the album with the Temptations’ yearning ballad “Just My Imagination,” a youthful fantasy of idyllic love, before tackling more mature confessionals such as “I’m in Love Again” and the Shawn Colvin-recorded title song.

Reeves can be a problematic artist for jazz purists. Although her tonal brilliance is undeniable and her sophisticated, improvisational vocalese is firmly in the tradition of Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, she’s also drawn to middlebrow singer-songwriters and artsy rockers. As a result, she’ll dabble in the catalogs of Colvin and Cat Stevens, and attempts Minnie Ripperton’s much-parodied (namely on South Park), perfume-scented valentine, “Loving You,” on When You Know.

One of Reeves’ successful pop ventures came with her 1999 reconstruction of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes,” a song that enabled her to also indulge her fascination with world rhythms. “One of my all-time favorite albums is `Gabriel’s` So,” she explains. “The melody is beautiful and, of course, the lyrics are stunning. We just kind of worked with the form and did something underneath. And I just absolutely love that song.”

When You Know follows Reeves’ well-received (and Grammy-winning) contribution to George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck, a film based on Edward R. Murrow’s challenge to the red-baiting of Joseph McCarthy. Reeves not only provided the era-appropriate soundtrack (including impeccable versions of “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “Who’s Minding the Store?”), but appeared in the film as a 1950s jazz singer.

“`Clooney’s` office called my office and asked if I would be interested,” she says. “I thought, ‘Wow, yeah.’ First of all, I knew the kind of things that he did. He does intelligent work, all kinds of really interesting things. I thought I was just singing on a soundtrack, and it turned out that I was actually in the film, so I didn’t realize how much I would be a part of the storytelling. But it was really a great experience.”

“He’s just down to earth, and he’s witty because he’s so intelligent. And having an aunt like Rosemary Clooney, he really understood the importance of doing it live. So I delivered the music like the actors delivered their lines.”

Good Night enabled Reeves to channel the soaring elegance of Vaughan, her all-time favorite vocalist, and the singer who served as a gateway drug into the jazz-vocal canon.

“At the time that I discovered her, I was trying to discover my own voice,” she says. “I had this very broad range and was not really clear as to where to go with it. So I listened to the other singers, and their emphasis on certain things was something I would get later on, but at that moment I needed to know what you did with the instrument. And there was Sarah Vaughan, who totally understood her vocal instrument and used it in so many amazing ways that it captivated me and opened the door to possibilities. From there, I could find my way.”

Unlike Vaughan, however, Reeves has to work in an era when the Great American Songbook is frequently reduced to a baby-boomer nostalgia exercise, a means for fading singers such as Rod Stewart and Bette Midler to revive their commercial prospects. These days, one of the biggest challenges for any interpretive jazz singer has to be finding material that hasn’t been killed by overexposure.

“I really don’t select them based on that. There are a couple of very obscure songs on this record, but I really try to find things that speak to my heart. And I feel that I can make them different by how they’re arranged,” Reeves says. “The first thing is the lyric. Even if it’s not a strong melody, you can always make the melody sound stronger by what’s happening underneath and around it.”

Much as she emphasizes words when choosing songs, Reeves values her working relationship with cousin George Duke - When You Know’s producer - because they’ve been able to move beyond verbal communication.

“George, because he’s a musician with such vast knowledge of all kinds of things - musically, lyrically - he helps you to stay on point, he helps you to keep your focus and to make it so it goes from one place to the next and all fits together,” she says. “The thing that I love about working with him is, while we do speak in musical terms, most of the time it’s just a feeling. When you have somebody that you trust that deeply, and they trust your artistry, then you start having this other kind of speak. You don’t need words.”

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