The Calling: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan (Blue Note)
Image in the Mirror: The Triptych (Justin Time)
Dianne Reeves and Jeri Brown just might be the two finest jazz vocalists currently performing. That assertion is no slight on Tony Bennett, Abbey Lincoln, or Shirley Horn, all of whom continue to make fine records, but those veterans’ trailblazing days have long since passed. Among more contemporary singers, Sheila Jordan seldom records or makes appearances, while Dee Dee Bridgewater continues to be a bigger figure overseas than at home; Cassandra Wilson and Diana Krall have won more critical acclaim and awards, yet neither has done anything recently that remotely compares with Reeves’ and Brown’s astonishing new releases. Both these dates effectively shatter the canard that jazz singing has waned; they should also provide Reeves and Brown with the widespread recognition that has thus far eluded them.
Brown’s brilliance as a scat singer and her narrative flair are unsurpassed among singers of her generation. But her talents aren’t very well known, because she has recorded exclusively for the Canadian company Justin Time, a great label that releases marvelous records by master talents, like the World Saxophone Quartet and David Murray, whom American companies stupidly ignore. As a result, she has never enjoyed stateside success.
Brown actually began as an operatic and spiritual singer before switching to jazz, and her extensive range and piercing articulation can be traced back to those formative years. She has been crafting wonderful releases since her first Justin Time date, 1991’s Mirage. She prefers cutting either her own originals or compositions by band members and other musicians she admires; all 11 tunes on Image in the Mirror were written or cowritten by pianist Milton Sealey.
Of the two women, Brown offers the more intimate recording, singing with warmth and tenderness on “My Fragile Heart” and “I’m in Love Again.” She provides steely anger on “Who’s Been Loving You?” and authoritative power on “Image in the Mirror” and “Lonesome Child.” When she scats, the lines are smoothly delivered and brilliantly controlled.
Bassist Avery Sharpe is the section star; his deep, throbbing pulse takes the spotlight, while veteran drummer Grady Tate smoothly underscores Brown’s lyrics with deft brush licks or flickering beats. Pianist Sealey navigates the pace alongside Brown, much as John Hicks once did with Betty Carter. The vocal and keyboard interaction proves almost as delightful as Brown’s beautiful singing, which is just as rich and attractive in the high register as the low. Her technique combines the best of traditional vocal improvising with contemporary arrangements and just a trace of avant-garde influences.
Dianne Reeves has been touted as an emerging star since the early ’80s, but she never seemed able to decide whether to concentrate on jazz, pop, or R&B. Whatever the style, she has always displayed a strong, gorgeous voice and superb timing and delivery, even when doing formula funk with the group Caldera.
After signing with Blue Note in 1987 and scoring a hit with “Better Days,” Reeves started almost a decade of experimentation, during which she shifted back and forth between show tunes, urban contemporary filler, and traditional jazz. She seldom performed any of this music with distinction, displaying just enough potential to frustrate more than satisfy. She didn’t score a true creative breakthrough until The Grand Encounter in 1996. That album signaled a renewed determination to pursue the jazz muse, but it pales in comparison to her latest.
Reeves has always cited Sarah Vaughan as an influence, so it was no surprise she’d make a tribute LP of her favorite Vaughan numbers. The revelation comes in her treatments, which compare quite favorably to Vaughan’s classics. Although The Calling is a bombastic showcase with ambitious orchestrations, Reeves doesn’t take as many chances with melody and time as Brown, partly in deference to Vaughan. Yet she is no less skillful a singer. Whether she’s delicately stretching out the phrases in “Embraceable You” or “Lullaby of Birdland,” energetically performing “Send in the Clowns,” or reworking “Key Largo” and “Obsession,” she sings with the charm, depth, and edge she’d only shown in spurts on much of her earlier material.
It helps that Billy Childs’ arrangements make the orchestra an additional instrument. The strings do not simply fill space, nor do they clutter the backgrounds; they are designed to punctuate, fortify, or expand the moods Reeves creates through her lyric readings. Producer George Duke has a horrible reputation in jazz circles, but that should change thanks to his work here. Not only has he coaxed remarkable takes from Reeves, but he gets equally tremendous performances out of the backing combo. Pianists Mulgrew Miller and Childs add crisp coloration to the mix, while bassist Reginald Veal, drummer Greg Hutchinson, and percussionist Munyungo Jackson prove effective rhythm collaborators. Reeves even adds above-average scatting, though she’s not quite as fluid or accomplished as Brown.
The Calling proves that Reeves deserves more acknowledgment than she has received. Jeri Brown, meanwhile, remains a forthright, wonderful vocalist and performer who may someday find a label in her homeland with enough sense to ink her. Until then, the jazz public should not miss either of these two releases, nor fail to add Jeri Brown and Dianne Reeves to the pantheon of great singers.
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