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Singing Backward

Dianne Reeves is following her own voice into the past.

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Things have been very good for Dianne Reeves lately. Her performance in the period film "Good Night, and Good Luck" provided nostalgic counterpoint to the McCarthy-era paranoia, and her interpretations of Billy Strayhorn standards for a recent PBS biography are at once classic and intimately immediate.

An extraordinarily gifted singer, Reeves was at one time criticized by jazz purists for her extramural excursions into the pop and world genres. But what to them may look like a homecoming is for Reeves another new exploration.

"It was really fun, almost like a fantasy of going back in time,"  she says. "Both projects came up at about the same time. I loved the music — for me the lyric is the most important thing — and I wanted to respect the period."

In "Good Night" she and her band are worked in naturally, the singer captured in silvery black and white performing with her group in a CBS studio. "Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life," is more contemporary — other modern jazz artists and Elvis Costello also appear on the soundtrack — but it makes a strong case for the freshness of the past compared to some of today's stale distractions.

Billy Strayhorn was like Duke Ellington's alter ego, an arranger/composer who wrote the anthemic "Take the A Train" as well as music of haunting beauty like "Blood Count" and "Chelsea Bridge" for Ellington's band.

"I always wanted to sing Billy Strayhorn, especially those songs that haven't been sung for years," Reeves says. But it is not just the forgotten pieces that shine; Reeves' opening number, the titular "Lush Life," has been recorded no less than 463 times, but her version comes close to being definitive. The song develops unconventionally, with clever wordplay and tipsy intervals balancing along a knife's edge sophistication and sadness. Reeves delivers it with the quiet clarity of confession, her considerable powers focused on emotional detail, something like the constrained brilliance of a Fabergé egg.

"The lyric [of 'Lush Life'] just blows you away," Reeves says. "He wrote it so young — he was only 17 — and it makes you think he must have had a past life or the gift of prophecy. It really was a vision of how his life ended. It's not a song I would usually sing, or a lyric that addresses my life. I had to figure out how to put my thing into it."

Finding her way into a song has been a lifetime pursuit. "When I was young, my voice empowered me in a lot of ways, but it was also my persona, I could hide behind it. It was my salvation in junior high school when I found that I had something that I wanted to pursue. It was my love and passion, and it was a long time afterwards that I realized that I could also make a living off of it."

Reeves views her performance as the individual expression of a universal imperative. "Singing is just a manifestation of something in your soul that you need to express. I imagine that attorneys are equally passionate about the practice of law."

Concerts are essentially communal. "We perform as a group, with a co-creative spirit," she says. "I'm a bit of a chameleon: I may have certain feelings about certain songs, but in response to the band, I may sing the lyrics one way one night, differently the next."

At its most inspired, singing is an intimate conversation that invites the audience in. And not everyone feels at ease with the often intimidating intellectual strains of some modern jazz. "Some people like 'War and Peace,' others prefer 'Calvin and Hobbes,'" Reeves says. She cites pianist Ahmad Jamal as her model of intelligent accessibility. "His playing was always complex and beautiful," she says, "but it was something everyone could follow."

Reeves promises to follow his example at the Modlin Center; Richmond audiences are invited to follow along. S

Dianne Reeves performs at UR's Camp Concert Hall April 25 at 7:30 p.m. The performance is sold-out.

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