PORTLAND — Just when you think a Valentine’s date with the Oregon Symphony and glamorous jazz singer Dianne Reeves is shaping up to be utterly predictable and sentimental, the night throws in a few surprises.
Reeves, a four-time Grammy Award-winning vocalist who idolized Sarah Vaughan in her formative career, has been Blue Note’s best-selling jazz artist for the past 10 years — for many reasons.
Appearing as a Portland Jazz Festival artist in concert with the symphony Feb. 14 at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, she’s got the goods. She sings voluptuously, provocatively and affably. What’s not to like?
Reeves owns a rich, flexible voice that reaches from baritone to mezzo, like Vaughan’s. And like her heroine, she effortlessly shapes diverse styles from blues to bebop. “Lullaby of Birdland” and “Speak Low” don’t have a whole lot in common.
The show was not just about the music. For one, she possesses the showbiz gene (boy, can she tell a story!). And she’s politic enough to compliment Oregon on its virtues, including the symphony.
After 22 years with Blue Note, she has the professional heft to work with a tightly grooved trio familiar with her every move and improvisational whim. Backing her were Peter Martin, piano, bassist Reuben Rogers, and drummer Kendrick Scott, who played the night before with Terence Blanchard – as well as the Oregon Symphony, most of whom seemed to be enjoying the change of pace in their tuxedos.
Reeves’ two-set program consisted mostly of standards, with a lot of Billy Childs’ arrangements. She made the pieces her own, especially “Misty” (a second-set surprise to the 10-song repertoire) and a dramatic, tear-jerking, slow-paced “Send in the Clowns,” another Childs’ arrangement and Vaughan signature. Her “Embraceable You” and Vaughan favorite “Obsession” wrung out the highs and lows of her sultry voice.
She scatted her way through transitions, sang happy birthday to the bassoonist, and called Oregon Symphony assistant director Gregory Vajda (who directed Thomas Lauderdale with the symphony last fall), “pretty cute.”
Reeves proves herself a seasoned entertainer who keeps the American songbook alive. She quickly warms up a crowd, not much of a chore on Valentine’s, but she gives more than she has to. When she returned for an encore, she walked onstage barefoot after removing her “two-hour-limit” spikes. The audience was primed for the informality.
Her easy-going but polished presentation moved us closer to the magic, range and tradition that the “Divine One” Sarah Vaughan left in Reeves’ hands.