Alex Skolnick heads the jazz guitar group Alex Skolnick Trio and the acoustic world music ensemble Planetary Coalition, and is the lead guitarist of the Bay Area thrash metal band Testament, which he joined at 16. He has a BFA from the New School, where he studied jazz, philosophy and creative writing. He’s been a guest soloist for Rodrigo y Gabriela (appearing on their album 11:11), as well as participating in numerous other collaborations. He runs the popular blog Skolnotes and his first book, Geek to Guitar Hero, was published in 2013. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. His website is here and you can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
Dianne Reeves is the type of artist I wasn’t supposed to be a fan of: a modern-day chanteuse who encapsulated the dignity, virtuosity and high-class pizzazz of the great ladies of jazz from an earlier era. What business did I — a kid immersed in high-volume power-chords, pointy guitars, lengthy solos and lengthier hair — have listening to someone like that? As it turned out, Dianne would be one of the first artists I’d become a fan of on my own — not because peer groups, trends, magazines or MTV told me I should, but simply because from the moment I heard her, I recognized true greatness.
It began in 1988 with Sunday Night (later to be called Michelob Presents Night Music), a Lorne Michaels-produced late-night program focused exclusively on high-quality live music. This show was innovative, inspiring and — in our televised times of duck-hunting hillbillies and attitude-infested heiresses — unthinkable for a major TV network today. The hosts (saxophonist David Sanborn and Jools Holland, the latter now the host of a more pop-oriented but similarly innovative BBC show, Later) would occasionally pair up artists who’d never performed together before. On one such night, two vocalists were brought on stage: Dianne Reeves and David Peaston. Despite sharing strong gospel backgrounds, prominent music careers and diverse abilities, these two had never met. Singing an old blues standard, T-Bone Walker’s “Call It Stormy Monday” (well known to rock fans as “Stormy Monday” as recorded by the Allman Brothers Band), the two strangers went to unimaginable heights, each pushing the other farther with every new section of bars. I’d never seen nor heard anything like it.
In the years since, I’d catch Dianne live at Yoshi’s in Oakland, the Blue Note in New York, and other places. She’d never disappoint. I’d buy her albums, with one minor complaint: while her voice was always stellar, the tracks — while played by the best musicians in the business — often sounded slick, extremely well produced, and tailored toward reaching a wider audience rather than capturing the magic of her live performances. Still, scattered among the smooth stones, you could find a few gems.
Which brings us to her latest album, Beautiful Life. In some ways, this new recording fits the description above: polished production, cream-of-the-crop musicians and, nestled within the slickness, some majestic moments. But it’s also a very unusual album for Dianne, and here’s why: For years, in addition to her original compositions, she’s freely floated between the standards of yore — well represented by her Grammy-winning soundtrack to the 2005 George Clooney film, Good Night and Good Luck — and some truly noteworthy “new standards.” A great example of this would be her heart-melting version of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” (from 1999’s Bridges), a track so stunning, it could evoke spiritual feelings in the staunchest, most skeptical scientists. With Beautiful Life, however, she’s chosen to step out of her already wider-than-most comfort zone, not in terms of song choices but in terms of sound, with two main components. One is the inclusion of several featured guest artists. The other is an experimental aspect, associated with artists who’ve emerged in the 21st century (a few of whom appear here) and best summed up by Dianne’s own words in the liner notes: “Bold colors outside the lines rendered in the tones of jazz tradition.”
Things kick off with Marvin Gaye’s 1976 title track, “I Want You,” and the opening eight measures are intimate — nothing but voice, guitar, piano and percussion. (I could happily listen to a whole album of just this.) When the rest of the band comes in, they’re augmented by thick backup vocal textures, drum programming and other electronic textures. Trumpeter Sean Jones is the featured guest, adding a high-energy, hard bop element that somehow fits the slow, hypnotic groove. Dianne’s vocal delivery never loses the intimacy of those first eight bars. The same is true of the second track, “Feels So Good (Lifted),” an original featuring legendary keyboardist George Duke — a cousin of Dianne’s who sadly passed away in 2013 and was deeply beloved and respected across many genres (and well known for his mid-‘70s tenure with Frank Zappa). A Brazilian-flavored guitar vamp and Duke’s embellishments are especially enticing. As always, Dianne captures the freshness of singing a tune for the very first time blended with the expertise of the ten thousandth. However, certain elements take some serious getting used to, especially the clap track. I don’t mind it so much on the second tune, but on the first, it’s placed on beats two and four of the measure, bringing to mind the Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash. Don’t get me wrong: I love late-’70s hip-hop, but amidst Dianne’s tender, heartfelt vocals, I’m not sure I want to hear a sound so strongly associated with “Rapper’s Delight.”
Track three, a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” is a great choice, with a melody perfectly suited to Dianne’s voice. The featured guest and arranger is Robert Glasper — the postmodern jazz pianist well known for his associations with Erykah Badu, Bilal, Maxwell and others ascribed (often unwillingly) with the term “neo-soul.” For lack of a better term, the neo-soul influence is very prominent here, with walls of background vocals and plenty of electronic sounds mixed in with the natural instruments. The drum programming occasionally adds an EDM-like rhythmic tension. Bold and experimental, for sure, but I’d like to hear Dianne perform this tune in more organic context, as she did with “In Your Eyes.”
For the next batch of tunes, things pick up a notch as the production seems better suited to the songs. “Satiated (Been Waiting)” is a slow but intense gospel groove (by producer/drummer Terri Lyne Carrington) that brings to mind that Sunday Night performance, thanks to Dianne’s impassioned delivery and interaction with a male counterpart. (In this case, vocalist Gregory Porter.) There’s even a searing, jazz-tinged, electric blues guitar solo reminiscent of the late Hiram Bullock (the original guitarist from Sunday Night), courtesy of Marvin Sewell. “Waiting in Vain” respects Bob Marley’s original with an international flavor courtesy of Dianne’s long-time acoustic guitarist, Brazil’s Romero Lubambo (who arranged the tune) and the deep pocket of Cameroon’s bass virtuoso (and former Zawinul Syndicate member) Richard Bona, as well as guest vocalist Lalah Hathaway. The only concern is the easy-listening intro, which goes on for a bit too long. (Respectfully, I’ll be starting this track from 1:31.) Now, here’s where electronic components and huge production make sense: “32 Flavors” is pure funky attitude worthy of Prince’s Musicology — a bit different for a Dianne Reeves album, perhaps, but it works. If you’re unfamiliar with the original (by Ani DiFranco), this will be one of those tunes that – like Hendrix’s recording of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” – is defined by a great cover version.
After these crashing waves of excitement, the tide is brought down a bit by “Cold,” a soft ballad that effectively captures sadness — a bit radio-friendly for my taste, but well placed after “32 Flavors.” “Wild Rose,” featuring celebrated singer-upright bassist Esperanza Spalding (who wrote the tune), is also a bit on the light side but organic, sophisticatedly arranged and superbly executed. The lone “old chestnut” of the album is “Stormy Weather,” treated with a chord reharmonization that effectively enhances the lyrics, a colorful, expressive and haunting beauty of a ballad.
Next up: the album’s pièce de résistance. “Tango” has no words — and none are needed. The entire tune is a scat with a Latin-American inflection. The intro, a solo vocal cadenza that lasts for an entire minute, is worth the price of admission alone. The band follows and delivers, especially Lubambo and featured guest, “mouth trumpeter” (no joke) Raul Midón (who also happens to be an acclaimed singer and guitarist). With due respect to all the lyrical content on this album, it is this wordless gem that best captures lightning in a bottle.
As Beautiful Life winds down, I’m still gleeful from “Tango,” yet accepting that not all tracks were written with this listener in mind. What follows is “Unconditional Love (For You),” a slow groove, which — despite nice vocals and the trumpet flourishes of special guest Ingrid Jensen — is a return to smoothness. “Long Road Ahead,” a tender, gospel-tinged ballad, closes things out. It’s a beauty of a composition — inspirationally sung by Dianne with effective interactions courtesy of featured guest Grégoire Maret on harmonica. But why the synths, sound effects and clap track? All it needs is Peter Martin’s delicate piano and maybe a little bass and percussion.
For now, I’ll continue waiting in vain for that Dianne Reeves album that feels definitive: the one that captures her diverse sides without ever being overtaken by production, crossover appeal, or other considerations. That day may never come, but that’s OK, sometimes as listeners, we have to put aside our own preferences and appreciate the big picture.
After all, Mrs. Reeves is probably many things to many people. One of those things is a “musician’s musician.” But who are we musicians to keep her all to ourselves? There are others — in much larger numbers, I’d imagine — who’d prefer the polished and pop-approved Dianne. Some may lean toward the smoothness of lite radio Dianne. Others still may gravitate toward the new, post-neo-soul-infused Dianne.
Still, I’ll always think of my Dianne: the Dianne who brought down the house singing “Stormy Monday” all those years ago. The Dianne who can — in one set — evoke the sass of Sarah, the blues of Bessie, the soul of South America. The Dianne who stirs a spiritual sensibility within those of us for whom the term “Sunday morning” is synonymous with the term “sleeping in.”
Any album capturing that Diane Reeves, even on just a few cuts, is worth owning. And that right there makes Beautiful Life a successful operation.