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JAZZ | Spotlight

One Divine Singer Pays Tribute to Another

February 25, 2001|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman writes frequently about jazz for The Times

Dianne Reeves has been a much admired jazz singer for more than a decade--particularly favored by peers, who recognize the solid musical foundation that supports her work.

So why is it that she has never quite received the widespread acknowledgment her talent clearly deserves? Probably because her eclectic interests have taken her through a number of genres beyond the jazz mainstream. And probably because she has handled those different areas with such easygoing skill.

Reeves has taken on a more steady jazz course of late, however, with a Grammy win this year for her live album "In the Moment." Her live performances (she appears at UCLA's Royce Hall on Friday) have revealed a singer with a superb sense of rhythmic swing, a solid ear for harmony and an imaginative approach to vocal improvisation.

On "The Calling: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan" (***, Blue Note), however, Reeves takes a somewhat different tack--one that demands careful receptivity in order to fully appreciate what she is attempting. The title accurately defines the scope of the project, and the selected songs--"Lullaby of Birdland," "Send in the Clowns," "If You Could See Me Now," among others--further underscore the Sarah Vaughan connection.

There are times in the album when Reeves largely sets aside her own style, choosing instead to emulate both the timbre and the sweeping vocalisms associated with Vaughan. And, to her credit, she does it extremely well. But the subtext of the music has another reference point--the Miles Davis collaborations with arranger Gil Evans. That is provided by composer-pianist Billy Childs, who has delivered a series of lush orchestral wrappings that reach beyond accompaniment and into symbiotic musical partnership. It doesn't always work perfectly, but when it does, the resulting performances are stunning examples of what can happen when talented artists set aside their egos in pursuit of a common creative goal.

Cleo Laine, like Reeves, has also been poorly recognized. In the case of the English singer, however, she's had low visibility in the jazz community for decades, despite being nominated for Grammys in pop, jazz and classical categories as well as being appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Given the gossamer sound of her voice and the consistently adventurous quality of her work over the years, it's hard to understand why she has so often been overlooked (other than the still common xenophobic jazz tendency to minimize artists from other countries).

Recognized or not, Laine has partnered with her husband of five decades, John Dankworth, in the production of some first-rate recordings and live performances. But none was better than "Live in Manhattan" (***, Gold Label)--the chronicle of a 1998 Carnegie Hall concert that offers a series of beautifully crafted, upbeat highs.

Her incredibly pliable voice, with what sounds like a four-plus-octave range, is in rare form, seemingly unaffected by age (she is 73) or wear (Laine has frequented the musical theater stage almost as much as the jazz world). Obviously buoyed by an enthusiastic crowd, lovingly supported by Dankworth's arrangements and his fine alto saxophone and clarinet work, Laine delivers with barely a musical misstep.

Are there spots where the proceedings sound a bit too carefully packaged? Sure, but even there--her version of Ella Fitzgerald's "How High the Moon," for example--Laine's rhythmic drive, her articulate vocal execution and sense of joy in the process of making music make even the more mundane moments come vividly alive. And her ballad rendering of "When the World Was Young" is a classic, the perfect match of singer and song.

A new album by Shirley Horn is generally a cause for celebration--and with good reason. Her work bridges the period between the classic Holiday/Vaughan/Fitzgerald era and the present via an instantly recognizable sound and style. In that sense, "You're My Thrill" (** 1/2, Verve Records) won't surprise any of her fans. Like so many of her outings, it includes a balanced blend of her characteristically laid-back ballads and crisp, in-the-pocket, rhythm-driven numbers.

The better moments are fine, indeed: dark, late-night readings of "The Very Thought of You" and "I Got Lost in His Arms," rendered over the oozing, elastic rhythms that make her ballads such dramatic episodes; elegantly swinging interpretations--"The Best Is Yet to Come" and "Sharing the Night With the Blues"--in which her solid foundation as an instrumentalist informs and energizes every phrase.

That said, there also are moments in which Horn's least appealing quality--her somewhat monochromatic tone--becomes a bit wearying. Fortunately, lush orchestral charts and the contributions of a few guest stars such as guitarist Russell Malone add some needed textural variety.

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