Reviewed by Daniel Garrett
A Little Moonlight
by Dianne Reeves
Blue Note Records, 2003
I have been thinking about the country drives I took with my family when I was a boy, and walking with my grandmother, sister, and cousins to pick blackberries, beginning a high school magazine, conversations with a college friend about literature and politics and Buddhism, the (frustrated) hopes I had during my first publishing job, and the excursions to restaurants and a baseball game, a dance club, and Central Park for a picnic as well as the talks about books I had with people involved with my Cultural Politics Discussion Group—all nostalgia, an appreciation for things of the past that distract one from the complexity and difficulty of the present, an inclination to forget that the past had its own unpleasant challenges and disappointments. The album, A Little Moonlight, by Dianne Reeves is tasteful, intelligent, and pleasing; it is a collection of well-known songs, including “What A Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Darn That Dream,” “You Go To My Head,” “We’ll Be Together Again,” and “Skylark,” but it is impossible not to hear it, at least partly, as a gesture of nostalgia.
We cannot always see the most pressing concerns of today in yesterday’s songs and those concerns are part of what can make yesterday’s art seem simple and today’s art seem more than simple, more than entertainment. I recall that during the same time that I first heard A Little Moonlight, after leaving a film screening at Manhattan’s Angelika Film Center of a double feature, I felt as if I had been to a feast: the films I saw were Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, and Fernando Meirelles’ and Katie Lund’s City of God, both of which are distillations of the contemporary moment. Dirty Pretty Things focuses on an illegal African immigrant, a former doctor working as a hotel clerk in England, and a Turkish woman maid, a black British prostitute, and an Asian male hospital worker who befriend the African, who soon learns of a black market human organ-selling operation as a result of working in a hotel. City of God deals with violent youth crime in a town, Cidade de Deus or City of God, in Brazil. I wondered when I had last felt this sense of fullness, a capturing of a world in art, when reading a book or listening to a music album. I was surprised to think that the music that came closest to this was rap, which, despite its emotional and intellectual limitations (lack of compassion, lack of virtuous goals, lack of historical sense), creates scenarios, scenes of drama that allow emotion and commentary, analogous to film. To then listen to an album such as A Little Moonlight, even though it contains thoughtful selections that are performed with care, a certain enthusiasm, and an indication of significant understanding, is to be made to think about all of that again.
A Little Moonlight features, with Reeves, Peter Martin on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass, Gregory Hutchinson on drums, Romero Lubambo on guitar, and Nicholas Payton on trumpet; and it is produced by Arif Mardin with engineering by Michael O’Reilly. (Mardin has produced music albums with Norah Jones, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Chaka Khan, and Aretha Franklin.) The album begins with “Loads of Love,” a Richard Rodgers song, and it is a promising beginning, as the lyrics say, “I just want money, and more money, and loads of lovely love” and “I want my dinner and some smart conversation, and a nice position will do, but I want loads and loads and loads of lovely love.” If every song were at least as precise in its references, this album would fulfill most of my expectations. “I Concentrate on You,” written by Cole Porter, has the narrator-singer say that in the face of the world’s discouragement, she concentrates on the man she loves, again a song that doesn’t leave out complexity. “Skylark,” written by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, is given what seems a felt performance, and Reeves’ voice, which sometimes has a hard brightness, is on “Skylark” warmer and darker. Reeves sings “Lullaby of Broadway,” a song written by A. Dubin and H. Warren that is sometimes given a blaring treatment by others, and she inflects the song with a gentle and ruminative sadness, and the song is made genuinely a lullaby. However, “What A Little Moonlight Can Do,” which Billie Holiday made famous, and “I’m All Smiles” do not seem as interestingly interpreted. When Reeves takes on a song with a quick rhythm or that demands high energy, she can sound sometimes as if she’s simply running through a song (she also can sound ferocious), but when she is slower and quieter, one feels the strength of her voice and her feelings.
I have not followed the career of Dianne Reeves as closely as I have that of other singers, and I know that we sometimes prefer to pay attention to the arrival of singers rather than their development, which is just one more way of selling fantasy, the fantasy of “potential.” I like Reeves’ albums Never Too Far (1990) and Art & Survival(1994), and both albums have songs in which one can see an identifiable contemporary life and also feel the singer’s passion for that life. On Never Too Far, the title song, written by Diane Louie, and “Come In,” written by Reeves, Louie, and Billy Childs, are two intensely dramatic ballads about friendship and love, beautifully shaped, perfectly performed; and a song written by Reeves and Louie with George Duke, “How Long,” is about poverty and need and Reeves’ performance is painfully believable and artistically glorious. In Art & Survival’s “Endangered Species,” written by Jeanne Pisano and Dianne Reeves, Reeves says that she’s a woman and artist and she knows where her heart belongs, and Louie and Reeves’ “Come to the River” has a spiritual theme; and these are but two of the album’s songs that make this collection sound like a very personal statement.
I know that Reeves admires the work of Sarah Vaughan and Nina Simone; she dedicated an album to Vaughan (The Calling: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan) and wrote liner notes for a Simone anthology. Sometimes it’s hard for artists to be understood if they do not fit preconceived notions, the patterns set by their predecessors, and there are even preconceived stereotypes for contemporary artists (the shouting soul sister and vampish rapper are two), and Reeves at her best does not fit a stereotype—and I’d argue that her best may be in work such as Never Too Far and Art & Survival, but something like A Little Moonlight, so clearly in the jazz tradition, may be a more understandable work. Reeves was recently featured in George Clooney’s film Good Night, and Good Luck, about Edward R. Murrow, and there too she sang some great standards.
Singers can sing standards or work with unusual themes or structures; they can sing about the fluctuations of love (Sarah Vaughan, “Send in the Clowns”) or murder (Ella Fitzgerald, “Mack the Knife,”), flowers and nature (Streisand, “Lazy Afternoon”) or bad parenting (Streisand, “Children Will Listen”), the pleasures of summertime (Diana Ross, “Summertime”) or racial prejudice (Diana Ross, “Only Love Can Conquer All,” and Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddamn”) or anything else they like. I don’t think that an interest in social issues or politics is necessarily what makes a singer or artist relevant; after all, if one is very serious about politics, one gets involved in politics—political groups, elections, legislation, and even systemic economic agreements that affect ordinary life. However, I am pleased when a singer does more than sing “I love you,” appreciating songs about nature, murder, political conflict. Cassandra Wilson is an example of a singer who is not limiting herself; she has sung standards and her work has included the futurist, experimental jazz album Jumpworld, and collections of mostly contemporary songs Blue Light Til Dawn and New Moon Daughter, and a tribute to Miles Davis, Traveling Miles. I would not want Reeves to be anyone but herself; and I find myself hoping that she listens to her own work and can identify its strongest aspects. I like Dianne Reeves’ A Little Moonlight—it is a perfectly lovely record, but I know she is capable of more.
About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in or on AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, IdentityTheory.com, Offscreen.com, PopMatters.com, Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today.