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Friday, February 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 6.0° F  Fair
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Singer Dianne Reeves makes a case for jazz's relevance
Beyond boundaries
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The recent death of Abbey Lincoln made it official. The golden age of female jazz singers is over.

But that doesn't mean the genre is played out - not by a long shot. Contemporary women are finding a way to sing jazz without slavishly imitating Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, the three titans who set the standard over half a century ago. One of the best is Dianne Reeves, who appears as part of the Wisconsin Union Theater's Isthmus Jazz Series on April 8.

Reeves rivals her idol, Vaughan, in virtuosity. She shapes phrases with exquisite subtlety, making use of a shiver-inducing lower register. Her ballads have a languorous quality, with dramatic swooping notes and a delicate vibrato. On up-tempo numbers, the lyrics sometimes dissolve into scat syllables, Fitzgerald-style, and Reeves melts into the band as just another instrument. At times like these, she communicates something ineffable - a sort of bliss that exists beyond the realm of words.

Familiar melodies don't sound at all familiar when Reeves gets through with them. She has a gift for improvising, to the point where standards like "The Man I Love" and "Love for Sale" become something else entirely - something she can call her own. This is jazz singing of the highest order, matched by only a handful of others since Louis Armstrong invented the art form in the 1920s.

Virtuosity is one thing, but finding a song's emotional essence is something else entirely. That's where Billie Holiday excelled, and Reeves often seems to feel her material as deeply as Billie did. Onstage, she's an actress, allowing her tales of love or loss to register on her face.

Jazz doesn't mint many stars these days, but Reeves has made her mark. She's won four Grammys, and she appeared as a 1950s jazz singer (not much of an acting stretch) in George Clooney's movie Good Night, and Good Luck. It doesn't hurt that she looks so glamorous on album jackets and magazine covers.

Why did Reeves, 54, gravitate toward jazz when pop or R&B might have been an easier path to fame and fortune? Chalk it up to the rich cultural environment of the 1960s, when jazz held out the promise of -- in her words -- "music without boundaries."

Reeves grew up in Denver, in a family of musicians. She sang around the piano in a casual way, and it wasn't until she got to junior high that she realized music was really her thing.

"It was empowering for me," she says. "So I decided that this is what I want to do."

At the ripe old age of 12, Reeves started working seriously. She formed her own band, playing proms and even doing out-of-town gigs. She looked for opportunities to sing wherever she could find them.

"I used to go hang out," she says. "The culture of jazz music was very much alive then. You could go into places and sit in and sing. And my parents or uncle or sister would escort me."

Reeves wasn't just singing jazz back then. She experimented with the whole range of sounds that came out of the vibrant 1960s culture.

"It was a rich time then," she says. "A lot of the world was changing, and at that time people really wrote about that kind of stuff, from Bob Dylan to Stevie Wonder to Marvin Gaye to Aretha Franklin. Everybody was talking about the times."

For Reeves, jazz was an important part of the mix, even though it had declined in popularity post-Beatles.

"A lot of the architects of the music were still alive at that time, making all kinds of amazing records," she says. "Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Return to Forever - so many amazing groups. It was music without boundaries."

Most exciting of all was the musical mixing-and-matching characteristic of the 1960s.

"The thing I loved was that rock, jazz and classical music all loved being around each other," Reeves says. "That was before people started putting them in bins and separating everything. A rock musician would do a song, and jazz musicians would cover it. Or rock musicians would do a gig because there'd be amazing jazz musicians there."

Reeves studied classical voice, sang in the high school jazz band, and tried to find a style of her own.

"I'd come up with my interpretation of a song," she says. "At that time it was really important to have your own voice. That's how the industry dealt with everybody - you know, your uniqueness. Nobody tried to sound like anybody else."

Reeves went to the University of Colorado, then to Los Angeles in the late 1970s to try to make it in the biz. She did studio work, sang a variety of styles with other people's bands (including Sergio Mendes and Harry Belafonte), and, in 1981, landed her first record contract.

By the mid-'80s, Reeves had arrived. She toured on her own and started releasing an album every year or two, including the Grammy winners In the Moment (2001), The Calling: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan (2002), A Little Moonlight (2003) and Good Night, and Good Luck (2006).

"When I go back and I think, did I struggle? Yes," she says. "But it was fun, because everything was about music."

It's funny to hear Reeves refer to "struggle," since she makes having a successful jazz singing career look so easy.

One of the keys to her broad appeal is her ability to tell a story through song.

"I'm looking for who am I in the song, where am I, where does this take place, who am I talking to?" she says. "I break lyrics down like that. My favorite thing is to be able to show a picture, sort of like a short film, when I'm singing. I tend to pick songs, or write songs, that allow me to do that."

In other words, songs are more than just melodies to improvise on. To Reeves, the words actually mean something.

"I think words are powerful, especially when you give your emotional energy to them," she says. "So I'm very conscious of the things I sing about - that they mean something to me."

An essential skill for a jazz singer is the ability to improvise. Reeves relishes the idea that she and her band never do a song the same way twice.

"Improvisation is not just singing through changes in a song," she says. "It's like when you know a thing so well that you can change up at a moment's notice. You can bend and flow and pick different directions. It's like a conversation [within the band]. That's what I love about my band - they're all impeccable musicians. So when I'm on stage and I might sing something a different way, they'll go there, and it always creates something unique."

Reeves' band at the Union Theater includes Peter Martin on piano, Reginald Veal on bass, Romero Lubambo on guitar and Terreon Gully on drums. They'll play standards, Reeves' original tunes and songs by women composers. But, as befits a master improviser, nothing will be set in advance.

"We're constantly changing the show," Reeves says. "We never have a set list. I work with my musicians and I feel what the moment says to do. And those are the songs I call for the night."

In the early '90s Reeves moved back to Denver, where her family still lives. She likes the quality of life there and always looks forward to going back after her international tours.

"Denver is a big city with a small-town vibe," she says. "You don't spend your life in your car or in traffic. It has these beautiful, well-manicured parks all over the city, and every day I wake up and see a panoramic view of the mountains. They're only a half-hour away, and I can go up there with friends in any season and ski, snowshoe or hike."

Reeves also likes to cook, and her Denver friends are the beneficiaries.

"I always have interesting people over," she says. "I love to entertain and cook a really great meal, so people can discuss all kinds of things."

One of those things, undoubtedly, is the state of jazz. Reeves is confident of the music's staying power, pointing to Esperanza Spalding's startling win as the Grammys' Best New Artist this year.

"All over the world there are these [jazz] institutions, schools and programs, so yeah, the music is still very much alive," she says. "As with any kind of music that evolves, I think it's in transition, just like the world is now. In 20 years I could probably tell you what the state of jazz is better, in retrospect."

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