Dianne Reeves and Gregory Porter

Dianne Reeves, photo by Jerris Madison Bookmark & Share

No Boundaries

By Cristofer Gross

Dianne Reeves and Gregory Porter kick off 2015 with a Jazz Series highlight that transcends boundaries and generations.

If jazz had a national hall of fame on the order of the football and rock 'n' roll halls, vocalist Dianne Reeves would have been inducted in 2006, her first year of eligibility. Gregory Porter, who shares a Center double bill with Reeves on January 16, would be unanimously referred to as a "future Hall of Famer."

Gregory Porter, photo by Shawn Peters

Reeves' eligibility would have come 25 years after her debut release, Welcome to My Love. Initial critical response was encouraging for her first outing. In the years since, however, as her records have showcased her jazz singing, she has risen to the top ranks of vocalists and been hailed as a successor to legends like Sarah Vaughn, whom she thanked with 2001's The Calling: Celebrating Sarah Vaughn.

Likewise, Porter's albums have quickly launched him into the forefront of jazz singers. After his first releases, in 2010 and 2012, both earned Grammy® nominations; his third, Liquid Spirit, won for Best Jazz Vocal Album of 2013.

In part, Porter's and Reeves' appeal lies in a shared refusal to be confined by musical definitions. Drop the needle into any track off Reeves' latest, the critically acclaimed Beautiful Life, or into one of Porter's contributions to this year's standards compilation, Great Voices of Harlem, and their individuality resonates with an authority that transcends eras and genres.

For Reeves, the journey began in Detroit, where she was born in October 1956. It shifted to Denver, where she was a teenager in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The music business declared itself at a crossroads: Reeves, who sang in her high school big band and listened to soul, R&B, rock, and jazz, saw it as an intersection.

"At the time when I grew up, the whole thing of genres wasn't as strong as it became later on," she said in a recent phone interview. "There were no fences and boundaries around music. Everybody had his or her own voice: You knew who you were listening to. Those were extraordinary times."

Today, she is again excited to see a rising level of artistry and individuality related to the jazz field.

"There's this amazing thing happening with some extraordinary young musicians who are coming out of gospel music," she said. "Gospel music/hip-hop is their culture and they're very learned musicians who have distinct voices and definite ways that they wish to tell the story. And it's amazing. They have blurred the lines. I listen to it and wonder how did they come up with that?

"Gregory is one of them. He's an amazing songwriter and storyteller, and his lyrics are just stunning. He's become loved all over the world in a short amount of time."

Porter, 38 when Water was released four years ago, smoothly combines influences extending from today's music all the way back through the first entries in the Great American Songbook.

"I always felt like the subject matter that I can choose for jazz is wide open," Porter has said. "On Liquid Spirit, there may be a subtle protest song, but also I can sneak in a lullaby, and then I can say something about God and love."

It's the voice, however, and the sight of his signature hat, that first grab audiences. As Don Was, head of the Blue Note label that released Liquid Spirit, says, "It's an incredible texture to his voice: really warm. It just cuts right through to you, like Lester Young or something like that."

"But he's writing songs for that voice," adds Producer Brian Bacchus. "And he's writing songs that you're not hearing today. It reminds me a lot of some of the songwriters from the sort of '70s soul period, like a Bill Withers or Curtis Mayfield, but he's putting it in a jazz context."

"It's a connection to our past, in a wonderful way," says jazz composer-musician Kamau Kenyatta.

Porter connected with Reeves on Beautiful Life with stunning results. For her first studio album in five years, produced by Terri Lyne Carrington, she collaborated with kindred spirits including Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper, Gerald Clayton, Lalah Hathaway and, in one of his last recordings, her cousin George Duke.

The song she performs with Porter, Carrington's "Satiated (I've Been Waiting)," is, as Thom Jurek wrote for AllMusic, "a sensual, sultry duet … [that weds] the gospel of Ray Charles and the blues of Nina Simone to jazz."

The entire album, in fact, is another triumph for Reeves. Many have called it the best in a long catalog that includes four Best Jazz Vocal Album Grammy winners. Among them are the Sarah Vaughn tribute and Good Night, and Good Luck, the soundtrack from the Oscar® -nominated Edward R. Murrow biopic that featured Reeves on screen and on every track.

At the time we spoke on the phone, Reeves had yet to perform "Satiated" in concert with Porter. Hopefully it will be part of the program when they arrive in January to turn Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall into a virtual Jazz Hall of Fame.

Cristofer Gross is a frequent contributor to Center publications.


Dates: January 16, 2015
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