Dianne Reeves lauds the spiritual power of jazz that goes ‘beyond the page’

“I know there is something beyond who I am in this earthly realm,” Dianne Reeves says. “I know it, because I’ve experienced it too much. And I give a great deal of love and respect to try to understand how to make it work better in my life."

Jerris Madison

They say to never rest on your laurels, but some people clearly could. Veteran jazz singer Dianne Reeves is one of them. 

With five Grammys, two honorary doctorates (from the Berklee School of Music and Juilliard), a 2018 NEA Jazz Master Award, a performance at the closing ceremonies of the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, a memorable role in George Clooney’s 2005 film “Goodnight, and Good Luck,” critical respect and popular appeal, Reeves has every right to kick back and coast.

But she doesn’t — and won’t. After more than four decades of performing and recording, “There’s still,” she says, “so much more to learn and grow from.”

On April 8, as part of the SCP Jazz Series, Reeves will once again grace the stage at Orchestra Hall  — in the town where it all began after star trumpeter Clark Terry invited her to perform with him during a band convention. She was only 16 and immediately hooked. Formal musical education and years of honing her craft followed. “In my life,” she says, “there were many very wise elders who had prayers and dreams for me when I was young and saw what I couldn’t see in myself.”

Brimming with increasingly polished vocal ability from the start, Reeves regrets that she initially relied more on acrobatics than artistry. “I hadn’t lived life,” she says. “I had this instrument and could go up and down and do all kinds of amazing things. But what was I going to say with this instrument?”

Then she met activist-singer Harry Belafonte and toured with him for three years, from 1983 to 1986. “Prior to that, I had my own band, and we were about improvisation and taking the music as far as we could go, which was extremely important. But when I started working with Harry, the words were really important and how you said them. That’s when I started to understand the power of words, and that’s when everything started to change for me.”

Blue Note signed Reeves in 1987 and a budding star was born. Grammy-winning jazz legend (then also something of a pop star, thanks to his 1983 hit “Rockit”) Herbie Hancock even played on her first album.

Between then and now, she has reinterpreted (and, in many cases, reinvigorated) everything from show tunes and jazz standards to pop and rock classics — always focused on meaning as well as melody.

“By far her most personal and soul-searching recording, the album seems as much therapy as a musical expression for the gifted singer,” the Washington Post wrote of Reeves’ album “Art & Survival” (1994). Twenty years later, upon the release of “Beautiful Life” (2014), the plaudits were still coming. She’d been away for a while, but “the half-decade absence has done nothing to diminish the power or glory of Reeves’ voice on record,” wrote JazzTimes critic Christopher Loudon. “Though she’s long been touted as an heir to Ella [Fitzgerald] or Sarah [Vaughan], here she adopts a smoother, more soulful sound that’s closer in spirit to Anita Baker.”

Sometimes referred to, though never pejoratively, as a “diva,” Reeves is unabashedly proud of her inner strength and professional accomplishments (“You have to stand in your light,” she says), giving plenty of credit to the “strong people” who raised her and the generous mentors who taught her.

There’s also the higher power that keeps her striving for something beyond awards and material success. But it’s a decidedly more artistic version of the higher power she grew up with in the Catholic Church.

“I know there is something beyond who I am in this earthly realm,” she says. “I know it, because I’ve experienced it too much. I give a great deal of love and respect to try to understand how to make it work better in my life. Grace and peace and love, these are things that we all want in our lives. But at the same time, there has to be some understanding of how to achieve them. And jazz, specifically for me, is a very spiritual music because it’s beyond the page.

“It’s this intimate exchange of ideas that is a language without words, that you can feel, that you can speak through an instrument, that you can share. And it becomes a spirit-to-spirit, soul-to-soul experience with your audience.

“It’s because of these things that I know there’s something greater than I am.”

Her most ardent fans might doubt that, but she knows it’s true.

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