Dianne Reeves Wields Storytelling Power at Howard Theatre
“Tell your stories.” That’s how Dianne Reeves signs off her shows lately. At the Howard Theatre, as part of the grand kickoff of the 2012 D.C. Jazz Festival (June 1–10), she illustrated the magnetic power of storytelling. Reeves linked a varied program of jazz standards, pop tunes and originals with touching anecdotes, mostly concerning family. It’s a strong characteristic to her artistry that comes as no surprise given that her 1987 breakthrough composition, “Better Days,” was a heartfelt tribute to her late grandmother. Twenty-five years later, the song continues to have a strong hold on listeners. When Reeves concluded her hour-and-a-half show with “Better Days,” she inspired many in the audience to shimmy and sing along.
Earlier in the set, she mentioned the recent passing of her mother and how she imparted tremendous motherly wit. She said that her mother didn’t entertain foolishness, sadness or depression. “She might have received them, but she didn’t entertain them,” Reeves noted. Then, as if she were taking cues from her mother, Reeves launched into the ebullient “Today Will Be A Good Day.” Powered by Chris Thomas’ fatback bass line and Terreon Gully’s good-foot drums, Reeves superbly channeled her gospel roots, imbuing the lyrics with defiant optimism and glorious musicianship.
The Howard Theatre’s compact yet luxurious environs offered the ideal setting for Reeves, affording her intimacy with her audience. Some of that warmth came from the accord she’s built with her band. Except for Thomas, who recently replaced Reginald Veal, Reeves has been performing mostly with the same musicians for at least four years. Peter Martin makes for a wonderful pianist as well as musical director, while Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo gives Reeves her own Lester Young. The simpatico between Reeves and Lubambo is infallible and was best demonstrated on the soothing duet of “Our Love Is Here To Stay.”
Reeves has long showed an affinity for Latin and Brazilian music that dates back to the late ’70s, when she sang with the jazz-fusion group Caldera. That musical kinship has deepened over the years, and with Lubambo on hand, it comes out gracefully. One of the newer additions to Reeves’ live repertoire is a wordless, slow-burning danzón on which she scats languid phrases that crest and fall, operatically. Alongside Lubambo’s flamenco-tinged guitar lines, it’s Gully’s agile drumming that afforded the song with the most Spanish tinge. Given that the song has yet to make it on record, Reeves’ titillated the audience with her assured wordless essay, then topped it off with an improvised backstory on how she was inspired to write the tune while she was in Barcelona, watching a Latina singer perform on television.
Another highlight included her mesmerizing makeover of “Stormy Weather,” which the ensemble underscored with a discreet yet highly effective r&b feel. Reeves was at her most fiery on her fist-pumping rendition on Ani DiFranco’s “32 Flavors,” the melancholy blues ballad “I’ve Grown Cold” and the effervescent “The Twelfth Of Never.”
Throughout, Reeves excelled at giving each song personalized conviction and supreme musical ingenuity that were offset with restrained elegance and crisp diction. In lesser hands, her polished stage performances could come off as callow professionalism. But lately, Reeves has been digging even deeper into her material, regardless of how familiar or new her song choices, finding new melodic corridors and rhythmic avenues to explore.
After a standing ovation for “Better Days,” Reeves and her band returned for an encore rendition of “Misty” in which she once again found personal truths within the chestnut and engaged the audience with compelling storytelling.