Recording information: Bobby Sparks Enterprises, Mesquite, TX; Highend Studio, New York, NY; Kaleidoscope Sound, Union City, NJ; Rocky Mountain Recorders, Denver, CO; Wellspring Sound, Acton, MA.
Photographer: Jerris Madison.
Throughout her career, Dianne Reeves has, perhaps more than any other vocalist, blurred the line that separates jazz from pop and contemporary R&B, extending the boundaries of each. Beautiful Life is her first recording in five years and her debut for Concord. Carefully produced by Terri Lynne Carrington, the musical cast includes Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding, Reginald Veal, Sheila E., Sean Jones, Marvin Sewell, Gregory Porter, Gerald Clayton, Richard Bona, Lalah Hathaway, and her late cousin George Duke. The opener is a thoroughly inventive Carrington arrangement of Marvin Gaye's "I Want You," which underscores the gossamer quality in Reeves' voice and jazz phrasing, sacrificing none of the original's seductive soul -- it's as much of the spirit as it is of the flesh -- and features a fine trumpet solo by Jones. A brilliant reading of Stevie Nicks' "Dreams" is introduced by Terreon Gully's tight, woody rimshots and Glasper's gospel piano and ethereal keyboards. Reeves subtly draws on her gospel roots in the lyric amid skittering breaks and beats. Nadia Washington's lithe backing vocal floats amid the atmospheric textures before Reeves carries it out with Afro-Latin scatting. Carrington's "Satiated (Been Waiting)" is a sensual, sultry duet with Porter. Colored by horns, piano, electric guitar, and Duke's subtle keyboard treatments, its singers wed the gospel of Ray Charles and the blues of Nina Simone to jazz. Bob Marley's "Waiting in Vain" is introduced by a glistening synth before Glasper's piano, and Romero Lubambo's nylon-string frame the melody. Reggae, bossa, and even a languid mambo wind through as Hathaway soars in the background, supporting the ache in Reeves' delivery of longing and affirmation with Afro-Caribbean scatting in the bridge. It's followed by a groove-laden funk redo of Ani DiFranco's "32 Flavors," with backing vocals by Carrington and Washington; Jones' layered trumpets pop amid wah-wah guitars and keyboards. It's sexy as hell. Spalding's "Wild Rose" is airy, jazzy R&B highlighting Reeves' trademark gift for syncopated phrasing. A thorough reconstruction of Harold Arlen's "Stormy Weather" teams Reeves' steamy contralto and effortless falsetto with Tineke Postma's soprano saxophone and Peter Martin's glistening piano arpeggios. Soul and contemporary pop and jazz are threaded through the original melody, underscoring its reputation as a "standard." Reeves' own "Tango," with Raul Midon, commences as one, but her wordless vocal improvisation and the simmering percussion are derived from Afro-Cuban sources. As a result, the tune mutates first into rhumba and then a furious salsa, with the singer soaring above the erupting rhythmic fury. Closer "Long Road Ahead" -- an original -- seamlessly combines neo-soul, jazz, and gospel. The unwavering conviction in Reeves' voice is gracefully and elegantly complemented by Gregoire Maret's harmonica. Beautiful Life is Reeves' finest record to date. It not only blurs genre lines but erases them. The end result is a glorious and accessible music that is as sophisticated as it is emotionally honest. ~ Thom Jurek