Lady Dianne and Lady Day

The great Dianne Reeves is coming to the Kennedy Center, and she's bringing the great Billie Holiday

Music

November 17, 2005|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Placing herself in the 1950s was a bit uncomfortable for Dianne Reeves.

The Grammy-winning jazz vocalist appears in Good Night, and Good Luck, the recent George Clooney-directed flick, which takes place during the McCarthy era. Reeves doesn't do any acting in it. She sings, setting the mood with smoky jazz numbers. But transforming into a '50s-style chanteuse a la Dinah Washington wasn't easy for the striking singer whose thick, dark dreadlocks fall past her shoulders.

"They put all these locks under a little wig," Reeves says, chuckling. She's calling from her home in Denver. "Honey, they had these locks taped to my head under this little wig. And I was like, `Oow! This kinda hurts.'"

In the critically well-received film, the singer is "part of the storytelling. I'm sort of like the Greek chorus," she says. "Since I'm basically myself in the movie, preparing for it was easy. I learned the music and learned the songs. We recorded them live, and it was a lot of fun."

Clooney selected the tunes Reeves interpreted, and they appear on the dazzling soundtrack. Backed by such fine players as pianist Peter Martin, bassist Robert Hurst and saxophonist Matt Catingub, the artist imbues the standards with her signature warmth and keen sense of swing. "Straighten Up and Fly Right," "You're Driving Me Crazy," "Solitude," "Pick Yourself Up" -- the oft-recorded songs are reinvigorated with charm and class.

But for her appearance at Washington's Kennedy Center on Saturday night, Reeves isn't performing cuts from the solid Good Night, and Good Luck soundtrack. As part of "Billie & Me," Reeves visits another time, the '30s and '40s, the years of Billie Holiday's artistic peak.

The show celebrates the musical spirit of the Baltimore jazz great through photos, dramatic readings and song interpretation. Fortunate for her, Reeves doesn't have to stuff her locks under a wig or squeeze herself into period costumes for the show. "Billie & Me" also features performances by Rita Coolidge, Joan Osbourne and Rokia Traore.

"Everybody comes from different disciplines," Reeves says. "But Billie's music touched so many people. ... What I loved about Billie is that she gave early singers license to style a song in a way that was unique to them. She had this ability to create emotional stories under the lyrics."

In her nearly 30 years in the business, Reeves has developed her affecting, soulful style through experimentation. During the early years of her recording career, the singer's albums could be frustratingly uneven as she veered from folk-pop to gospel-tinged R&B, from earthy fusion to slick smooth jazz.

In 1996, she released a sterling straight-ahead jazz effort, The Grand Encounter, but lost momentum with two unfocused albums: 1997's That Day ... and 1999's Bridges. Since 2000's In the Moment: Live in Concert, Reeves has been more consistent. And subsequent releases -- 2001's The Calling: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan and 2003's A Little Moonlight -- have been more rewarding if at times a bit stuffy. The vocalist has won a Grammy for each of her last three albums.

"Jazz has always been a part of what I've done because that's my foundation," says Reeves, 49. "I listened to all types of music that was part of my time, but it's always come full circle to jazz."

Reeves is constantly on the road with her trio, playing dates around the world.

"My God, I've never stopped to count how many we actually play," she says. "I don't think I want to."

When she's not on the road or in the studio, she's working the pots and pans in her Denver home, cooking for family and friends.

"I try to keep a balance, you know," Reeves says. "Music is a great part of who I am, but it's not all of who I am. I love to cook. Like I improvise in my music, I mix a lot of different flavors."

Early next year, the jazz artist will begin work on a new album.

"As I mature, I think my music matures," she says. "My experiences are very much a part of my music. I'm more concise in my choices. But I don't want to talk about the next project much. I want to see where it goes. I want to be surprised."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

See Dianne Reeves in "Billie & Me" at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. N.W. in Washington on Saturday night at 8. Tickets are $20-$50. For more information, call 800-444-1324 or visit kennedy-center.org.

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