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‘I just go where the music takes me’: Dianne Reeves on performing with Chucho Valdes & Joe Lovano

Chucho Valdes, Dianne Reeves and Joe Lovano
Chucho Valdes, Dianne Reeves and Joe Lovano

Please join me as I chat with my old friend Dianne Reeves about her upcoming NYC appearance in a most intriguing and singular setting. The evening is called "Duets" and will feature Dianne, pianist Chucho Valdés and saxophonist Joe Lovano in various duets, ending with an improvised trio. This rare performance takes place at the 92NY on May 16 at 7:30 pm ET. She talks with me about how this particularly fascinating pairing has stretched her as a musician and how the repertoire is picked. But we also get into reminiscing about the 1985 Playboy Jazz Festival with Jon Hendricks and Bobby McFerrin, what initially attracts her to a song and her new favorite singers. Check it out!

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

 Janis Siegel: Before we start, can I gush a little bit, please? I just want to show my gratitude and thank you for all of your beautiful, honest, creative work over the years. I've been a fan since we first sang together for Jon Hendricks’ Sing, Sing, Sing.  I was looking that up. It was 1985. That's how long I've known you. I remember you sang “Love for Sale” and somebody in the audience yelled out, “How much?”

Dianne Reeves: I don't even remember that. But I think you sang, “Da, da, da, da.” [notes from that song]

I sang “Easy Living” and “Bobby Did His Thing.” We are here to promote your incredible trio with Chucho Valdes and Joe Lovano.

Yeah, this has been an amazing thing to be a guest of Chucho who invited Joe and I.

No kidding. So how many times have you done this show?

We've been doing it for quite some time. It kind of came together around 2017 or 2018. He was honored at SFJAZZ and he invited me to perform with him at the concert that they did and it was amazing. He was like, “Oh, I’ve wanted to work with you.” Then we did another thing where they put me, him and Joe together. I think it was also his idea and it just kind of took off from there.

So it's called Duets?

Yes, Duets.

Why isn't it called Trios?

The reason is because he plays duets with Joe in the show, then plays duets with me, and then the three of us play together at the end.

Who picks the repertoire?

I do. He suggests things, and it was interesting because I thought, “What does he like?” Some of the things, actually, a lot of the things that I'm doing, he selected, which was cool with me. He has me doing this lullaby, “Drume Negrita,” which is a cute little song. I think the first time I ever heard it was Andy Bey’s singing it long ago. I'm excited about that, but he has another way of approaching the music with all these beautiful rhythmic Cuban undertones. It makes me sing a little bit differently and it's cool.

How do you feel this pairing has stretched you as a musician?

Well, that's what collaboration is all about, because it's one thing to feel the pulse of the music when you have bass and drums. It's another to feel it just with the piano. He orchestrates as well so you have to really be able to get in there and feel it. I absolutely love it. I'm enjoying myself because it's something so out of my norm.

Well, that should be very enticing for our listeners to hear that Dianne Reeves is excited about this show where she’s stretching her musical expertise. There's no drums, there's no bass,

But Chucho is strong rhythmically. He is the band. I've never seen or heard anything like it. The strength, but he also can be very delicate. He has these huge hands and of course he's like six feet four inches tall and he's just so lovely. Working with him, you just kind of fall into it and I just go where the music takes me.

That sounds heavenly. This is going to be May 16 at 7:30 pm at the wonderful 92nd Street Y (92NY).

It's a whole different kind of feeling.

Absolute, this is really almost chamber music. It feels like a very small ensemble of incredible musicians playing off each other. Where does Joe fit in with this?

Joe and I were label mates on the Blue Note label. I love Joe's playing and I think that he and Chucho have done a lot of things together in the past so there's some repertoire that they've shared over the years that they do. Then when we all three come together, we don't know what it's going to be, but it ends up being something really cool.

There’s a set list, but not?

There's a set list, there's a form, but then there's also the jazz.

That sounds heavenly. Okay, singer nerd stuff. What first attracts you to a song?

Sometimes it can be the melody, but more than anything, it's always a lyric that I could probably have some sort of subtext, some kind of story that I relate to the song, so that I can tell my story. Even though the people may not know what it is. That's the thing that really attracts me to a lyric.

I find the older I get, the more I'm attracted to the words. I have to say again, I'm obsessed with your version of “32 Flavors.” I was not aware of that song, and I love Ani DiFranco but then I heard your version.

You should have seen the incarnations of that song. Sometimes I would do it and then I’d say, “Okay Romero, play this,” and he'd play something, but it was quite a journey. But it's the poetry that makes you really feel it.

Well, the message of that song is killing. It's powerful. “I'm 32 flavors and then some.” And you are 32 flavors and then some.” You're no stranger to these trio settings. Didn't you have Russell Malone?

Yes, that was cool. Russell and Romero, like one from the South and the other one from the south in Brazil. It was really amazing because they both approach the music in a different way and here I am sitting in the middle. It’s this is wonderful hybrid of cultures.

That must have been great because Russell is a great straight-ahead player and then Romero is cool.

He has all those beautiful things. He loves so many songs. He knows lyrics. That's what I love. Then Romero was teaching me all of these things in Portuguese and it was just amazing.

How do you learn things in Portuguese?

The first time I ever did it was when I was working with Sergio Mendes. I was young and got a gig in 1981. His wife wrote everything out for us phonetically, so I started off not even knowing what I was singing. Eventually, I started to learn what I was singing. I listened to the language, and more than French or Spanish or any other language, including Italian, it seems easy to form in my mouth.

Because that accent is not easy. That nasality or nasalness.

Well, it depends on where you're from. Most of the singers that you hear from Rio have that type of carioca way of singing. That's the first way I started to learn. I started listening to other singers and I was like, “Oh, we pronounce it this way and that way and so forth. It's just like America.”

Right, for instance the Baiano accent is very different.

That part has been fun.

Didn’t you sing with Lizz Wright and Angelique Kidjo as well in a trio?

Actually, it was me, Lizz Wright, Angelique Kidjo and Simone, Nina Simone's daughter. That's how it started. We did this thing called Sing the Truth, and we did all the music of Nina Simone, which was pretty amazing, because what a story when you do that music. The spirit of Nina Simone is so palpable, she's right there.

She was such a strong spirit. Yes, she's hanging around. What upcoming projects besides this wonderful trio with Chucho and Joe, are you most excited about?

It's been a while since I've recorded because I have just been living. It doesn't seem that long to me until people say, it's been 10 years, actually 11 years since I put out a record. Romero and I have been working together since the late 90s. He's been on the majority of records that I've recorded, and we've never done anything together. He's going to come here to Denver, and we're going to record a project together. Just do it. Mindlessly do a bunch of songs that we really love. Then I'm working with John Beasley and we're going to work on this much bigger record, starting this summer. I have two projects because I'm not touring this summer. I'm working on these two projects and I'm really excited about it because at the same time, I'm really starting to understand self-care.

I hear you, because you love to work. You love to sing. It's not a job.

No, the job is the travel, and once you get there the rest is just wonderful. It's nice to have a little time off. Currently, I'm also working with Rolex, with the mentor protege program. My protege will be presenting in November. She's going to come visit me here. She actually was touring with me, Song Yi Jeon, an amazing singer. You can look her up.

I'm definitely going to look her up.

She's Korean. She's a really great writer, a singer with no words, but has this ability to just create all kinds of stories without words. She's really wonderful.

That would be a great title for a record, Stories Without Words.

The program has you work with people for two years. We're in the second year and she'll present this year so I'm excited about that.

That is very exciting. Just before we sign off, I just want to mention again that the great Dianne Reeves is going to be in New York City. This is your only New York appearance, right?

Yes. I just did my standard February thing for Valentine's Day at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Dianne Reeves will be coming to the 92nd Street Y (92NY) with a trio of incredible virtuosos—Joe Lovano on the tenor sax, Chucho Valdes on the piano and Dianne. So get your tickets now before they sell out.

I love that you're at BGO, Janis, that's really great.

I love it too because I'm a fan, also a listener, so it's really nice to get in there and play some of the wacky music that I love, and get to promote some young singers too.

There's a lot of them.

Who are your favorites besides Samara Joy?

I love this young woman, Christie Dashiell. I really love her. She’s amazing and live is like something really special as well. Of course, there’s Jazzmeia [Horn] and Cecile [McLorin Salvant]. I mean, they're all out there.

They're all incredible. How about Vanisha Gould and Emily Braden?

It's just a lot.

But there’s not a lot of young men.

I like Michael Mayo though.

He's a genius. He's got something like a Bobby McFerrin spiritual connection to the other universe. To the multiverse.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.


Over the past five decades, the voice of Janis Siegel, a nine-time Grammy winner and an eighteen-time Grammy nominee, has been an undeniable force in The Manhattan Transfer’s diverse musical catalog. Alongside her career as a founding member of this musical institution, Siegel has also sustained a solo career that has spawned almost a dozen finely-crafted solo albums and numerous collaborative projects, amassed a large international fan base and garnered consistently high critical praise.