When the brochure first came out containing the full listings of Duke Performance’s 2009-10 presentations, one was awestruck by the scope and amount of big-name stars, creative mini-series and diversity of styles that would be available for all. But even by that very high standard, one concert stood out – at least to me: Dianne Reeves, probably the greatest living jazz singer, accompanied by guitarists Romero Lubambo and Russell Malone. This magical trio played a show at Duke University’s Page Auditorium that has easily entered my top 5 concerts that I have ever attended.
Reeves, who grew up and still lives in Denver, was already at the top of the mountain of jazz singers when she appeared – as herself – in George Clooney’s film Good Night, and Good Luck and also received her fourth consecutive Best Jazz Vocal Grammy in 2006 for the soundtrack. During the performance this night she included a story describing working with Clooney and how hot he is – even more so in person. That was only one of several lighthearted but very engaging stories that she spoke of during the evening, including one at the end of the concert about her childhood and particularly her grandmother, while the two guitarists provided some quiet, tasteful vamping. But enough of the spoken word, let’s get to the music.
The stage was set simply: three padded bar stools, a couple of amplifiers, and a few flowers. Lubambo & Malone came out and launched into a duo of the great standard “I’ll Remember April.” Lubambo was appearing at Duke for the first of three concerts that he will be part of this season, in addition to having played a solo concert here last year. He is arguably the finest exemplar of the Brazilian style of guitar playing and has appeared on literally hundreds of recordings. Russell Malone has emerged as not only a great jazz guitarist, but facile in all styles and is completely self-taught! He has worked with, among many others, Harry Connick Jr. and Diana Krall.
Then Ms. Reeves came out and started scatting (wordless vocal improvisations as an instrumentalist would do) that showed a phenomenal vocal range that never sounded forced. She could climb from the low notes of a tenor sax to the stratosphere of a trumpet and make it sound effortless, natural, spontaneous and beautiful. That by itself would have been plenty, but she also conveyed the poetry of the lyrics and also showed herself to be a charming and unpretentious host.
After a story about meeting Sarah Vaughan, the singer she idolized, she gave a most sensitively wrought version of the beautiful song “Misty.” Another highlight was the great ballad “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” that transported all of us to a bar where it was “quarter to three, there’s no one in the place except you and me.” You can’t paint, act or write about loneliness, despair and heartbreak any more realistically than those three musicians did.
Reeves shared the spotlight with a pair of solos by each guitarist. Lubambo went first with what should be Brazil’s national anthem: Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “How Insensitive.” Lubambo, playing an amplified classical guitar, revealed the wealth of harmonic and melodic beauty in this gem in his stunning arrangement. The sensuous Brazilian rhythms were floating throughout so brilliantly that the addition of a drummer and bass player would have seemed superfluous. Malone, who was playing a hollow body electric guitar, was expected to play a great jazz standard for his solo but instead he opted for a surprise playing of the 1970 hit by The Jackson 5, “I’ll Be There.” This Berry Gordy song was one of his best and Malone’s interpretation elevated it to an even higher level.
Throughout the evening all the musicians displayed their versatility and even those who were not hard-core jazz fans were wildly enthusiastic about this once-in-a-lifetime trio. In one number Malone turned his amp up (perhaps to eleven!) and blew the roof off Page with some down-and-dirty blues and rock licks while Reeves intoned some great earthy sounds as if we were in a wild Saturday night gathering. The audience even joined in – and was actually pretty good.
Special mention needs to be given to the technical crew and the sound system for this concert at the much maligned Page Auditorium. There was a pure and pristine sound at all levels throughout the entire venue, always at what seemed like the perfect volume.