May 19, 2024

Dianne ReevesDianne Reeves
Christmas Time Is Here
(Blue Note – 2004)
by D. Kevin McNeir

Some musicians who haven’t come up with a new recording in a while have been known to slap something onto vinyl or compact disc given the new changes in technology, just before the Christmas season begins. Perhaps they figure that with the wealth of popular holiday tunes from which they can choose, that their fans won’t notice that their effort was lackluster at best.

Whenever jazz legend Dianne Reeves steps up to the microphone you can bet she will bring all of the goods. And once again the “grand dame” delivers with her latest recording, Christmas Time Is Here, recorded on the Blue Note label.

One cannot help but be impressed by the vocal histrionics by which Reeves has come to be known—she can doo wop, modulate, bend notes and scat with the best of them—from Carmen McRae and Ella Fitzgerald to Sarah Vaughn. And with a multi-octave range and several back-to-back Grammy Awards to her credit, Reeves certainly has earned her way to the top and to her inclusion on the list of all-time female vocalists from the jazz genre.

While her Christmas Time Is Here is certainly pleasing to the ear, those who are used to her interpretive skills may find that this recording lacks some of the mind-blowing vocal work that one has come to expect from someone of Reeves’ caliber. In fact, that is perhaps the real problem with this CD. The recording starts with a bang as Reeves literally nails “The Little Drummer Boy” with her own unique style. The musical accompaniment is reminiscent of a Jamaican calypso band with a lot of ear-pleasing percussion that is not over the top. And the beat is a cross between modern jazz and reggae.

However, Reeves’ voice stands out as she delivers with expressive phrasing and well-placed vibrato. At the end of the tune she gets a little funky—it’s almost a beckoning to get up on your feet and dance.

Another selection that merits your attention is “Carol of the Bells.” This writer recalls wonderful memories of practicing and performing this piece at every December concert as a member of the high school symphonic orchestra—every band and choir had this one in their repertoire.

Reeves cooks up something wonderful here with the wailing of the saxophone and keyboards extraordinaire. “Carol of the Bells” is clearly a jazz interpretation of a classic Christmas tune, and it’s done very tastefully.

The title tune, “Christmas Time Is Here,” was made popular by the Peanuts holiday classic television show that airs every December. It has been recorded as a vocal selection as well as an instrumental piece. Here, Reeves treats the piece like a quiet conversation among friends and family. In fact, one can almost imagine playing this selection as the children race for the Christmas tree to open their gifts.

Some critics have argued that this third selection on the CD doesn’t equal her performance on the first two songs. But as Reeves has remarked in several printed interviews, she more than anyone, has worked very hard to know her instrument—her God-given voice. Sometimes less is better.

“You try to pace yourself, make sure you’re connecting with what you’re singing,” she says in an interview with Tim Pulice. “When I first started out, I used my voice all over the place because I was really into my voice.

I really wasn’t into the lyrics and wanted to stretch out, be and do all of these different things. It wasn’t until after I worked with Harry Belafonte that this started to change. The world music we were performing sometimes has a dual message that had to be shared in the lyric. Through that situation, I found that less is more, that storytelling is best.”

Among the remainder of the selections, be sure to listen to “A Child Is Born,” a tune that is not often recorded but is certainly a perfect choice for one with the vocal abilities of Reeves. And given her desire to find songs that “tell a story,” this is one that may earn its way onto the list of Christmas jazz classics.

Also, check out “Let It Snow” if you’re looking for Reeves scatting her way in the Fitzgerald tradition. She lets go on this one and securely tackles the multiple octaves that are required in the vocal arrangement. The final piece begins with the strumming of a classic folk guitar—a fitting instrument for the tune “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Reeves’ voice is almost haunting as she converses in an intimate conversation with the guitarist while the overall performance is a good teaching tool for those interested in showcasing what can happen when a well-rehearsed jazz ensemble gets into a groove—feeling it each as they improvise. And while it may not go down in the annals of jazz history as one of the greatest interpretations of this popular piece, this writer enjoyed it.

Reeves is good, but not great, on this CD. Still, it will certainly make your Christmas “bright” if you add this one to your collection and can pop it into the CD player as you relax by a cozy fire and make a toast to the new year and all of its possibilities.