Sassy Celebration

When Dianne Reeves attended a Cannonball Adderley tribute concert in 1975, the young singer experienced a surreal moment like only a 19-year-old can, a moment seemingly ripped from the pages of a bad novel. Reeves was hanging out backstage -- the kind of perk you got when your cousin is famed keyboardist/producer and former Adderley sideman George Duke -- and she struck up a conversation with an older woman sitting on a sofa. Reeves mentioned she was a singer, and the lady asked who she listened to. Reeves rattled off a list, but then proclaimed her favorite to be Sarah Vaughan. She explained in detail why Vaughan was her idol. The conversation came to an abrupt end when the older woman was called away. She was scheduled to perform next. Without knowing it, Reeves had been talking to Sarah Vaughan.

"I had these records [from the '50s and '60s], and all the pictures were different," says Reeves, who might have recognized Vaughan circa 1960 but not in 1975. "I think she thought it was very, very interesting that I didn't know who she was, but that I was telling her that she was my favorite singer."

Reeves, who took home a Grammy this year for her recording In the Moment, was introduced to the great jazz singers via her uncle's vinyl collection when she was still a preteen. While she loved Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and the rest, to Reeves, there was something special about Vaughan. It's easy to see why. Sassy (Vaughan's nickname) was one of the first female vocalists to employ bebop phrasing and, with the possible exception of Anita O'Day, was the most adventurous female vocal improviser of the '40s and '50s. She was respected by her colleagues, from Earl Hines to Dizzy Gillespie to Miles Davis, not just as a singer but as a musician. Then there was that singular rich, earthy, sultry, smoky voice.

"She really used her voice as the instrument that it is," says Reeves. "[She] probably was one of the first to really, really do that, even more so than Ella Fitzgerald. Both of them were like extraordinarily great, but Sarah Vaughan was the one, because there was just so much color, so much timbre. It was obvious that she really loved the sound of her voice, and it developed how she would treat melodies when she improvised."

Four years before she met the diva, Reeves pored over Vaughan's recording of "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" She learned the song note for note, word for word, inflection for inflection. Upon mastering Sassy's version, Reeves was feeling pretty good. Then her uncle informed her that Vaughan rarely, if ever, sang a song the same way twice.

"That made me realize that…you have to find your own thing, your own approach, your own understanding of a song," Reeves says. "Find the textures and make it your own, so that it's something that you feel very familiar with, that you really, really know, and that each night, it can be alive."

Reeves went to the shed and started developing her own style. When just 19, she was encouraged by Earth, Wind & Fire and fellow Denver natives Philip Bailey, Andrew Woolfolk and Larry Dunn to move to Los Angeles. There she landed some session work, appearing on jazz and pop/R&B recordings, including George Duke's From Me to You. Throughout the late '70s she worked quite a bit with Dunn as part of his fusion group Caldera and on just about every record he produced.

With the release of Welcome to My Love in 1977, Reeves's solo career kicked into gear. Welcome proved to be a breakthrough album, firmly establishing Reeves as an up-and-coming vocalist. Like her versatile cousin, Reeves throughout her career has moved back and forth between jazz and pop/R&B-oriented material, garnering recognition on both sides of the smooth/ straight-ahead jazz fence, while refusing to bow to the demands of either. Her perseverance has paid off as she's a top-drawing act; she also has racked up five Grammy nominations and one award.

Twenty-five years after she met Vaughan, Reeves paid homage to her greatest influence when she recorded The Calling: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan last September. Tribute albums are plentiful, but oddly Vaughan has been neglected. Then again, maybe it's not so strange. Trying to tackle Vaughan's arrangements and interpretations is beyond difficult. Reeves selected tunes commonly associated with Sassy, such as "Key Largo" and "Lullaby of Birdland" as well as songs deeper in the Vaughan repertory, including "Send in the Clowns" and "Speak Low." Produced by Duke and arranged by pianist and good friend Billy Childs, The Calling is filled with lush orchestration and busy arrangements. Some tunes have a Broadway feel to them (not surprising given that some are from the Sondheim and Gershwin songbooks), while others get steamy in a subtler fashion. Reeves even moves into Vaughan's sultry lower register with authority.

The 11 cuts were knocked out in four days. Recording an album in short order is the way Sassy did it, and it paid off here. "We did a lot of preparatory work," Reeves says. "But I wanted the spontaneity, the feel of the orchestra, to be there right with me and to sing with the orchestra. It turned out that some of the members of the orchestra, they didn't really know what the project was about. Some of them, after we recorded a couple tunes, they said, 'Wow! This reminded me of those sessions that we used to do for Sarah Vaughan.' "

For all of Vaughan's influence, Reeves appropriately hits her most magnificent moments on "A Chamada," a song that Vaughan never sang. Reeves feels the tune pays homage to Sassy, and in a sense it does. Mimicry pales next to the highest lesson in jazz, which is the ability to interpret in a style recognizably your own. As Vaughan was wont to do, Reeves transcends the song, making the performance greater than the composition. It's one of those rare moments on the record that makes you pause.

Still, there's a delicious contradiction about The Calling: While every track feels like a tribute, Reeves puts her own stamp on the songs. Don't expect Reeves's version of "Key Largo" to sound like the Honda commercial, for instance. "The wonderful thing about jazz is you don't want to sound like anybody else," Reeves says. "You want to sound like yourself. But I have to say that [Vaughan] was the person that gave me the beginning of where to find that."

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Paul J. MacArthur