Of the 70-plus tunes attributed to Thelonious Monk, the ballads occupy a singular plateau, none more so than “Reflections,” which he introduced at a magnificent 1952 Prestige trio session alongside “Trinkle Tinkle,” “Bemsha Swing,” and a riotously swinging “These Foolish Things” that begins with a condign borrowing of Johnny Ray’s “Please Mr. Sun.” Though acclaimed as an evocative melody, “Reflections” failed to attract a lyricist and so never found traction with singers. It is classic, paradoxical Monk, beautiful and memorable yet a minefield of odd intervals, each essential to its bricks-and-mortar structure. It gives the illusion of being readily singable, but it isn’t.
In the 1980s, Jon Hendricks wrote an impressive, poetic lyric for the tune as part of Carmen McRae’s last major project, Carmen Sings Monk. She takes it at a medium tempo, cannily interpreting the lyric from the vantage of a worldly lady who has seen it all, rushing the tag, “Thank God I’m one girl who knows,” as if relieved to have made it safely to journey’s end. She also finesses the tune, gliding over some of the knottier intervals. Well, that’s what jazz singers do, and when they embellish a pop song and make it better, we cheer. But like many of Ellington’s trickier melodies, “Reflections” ought to be sung as written.
Fifteen years later, Dianne Reeves has made Monk’s and Hendricks’s song a focal point of her new, best-ever CD, A Little Moonlight. It also shone at her stunningly effective October 21 concert at Zankel Hall. If singers continue to neglect “Reflections” from now on, it may be for fear of not matching her standard. At her best, Reeves has always been candid in channeling Sarah Vaughan and McRae; on the first cut of A Little Moonlight, “Loads of Love,” she suggests a serendipitous meeting between them, scatting the first chorus à la Vaughan, and reading the lyric (“I never have demanded much”) with a touch of Carmen. But she also exudes a quality of her own—a positive, midlife, blossoming, open-to-experience womanhood. This is poignantly expressed on “Reflections,” where, backed only by piano, she applies her good time and flawless pitch to a slow Monkian tempo fraught with pregnant pauses—none more effective than in her bold assessment of that tagline: “Thank God I’m a woman [pause] who knows [long sustain].”
For an indication of how successful this disc is, consider that Monk’s tune and Richard Rodgers’s “Loads of Love” both sound made for her, as does Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark,” handled in an unexpectedly high key and making the most of the bridge, an adventure unto itself. Sinatra once criticized Ella Fitzgerald because one can hear her breathe; the champion of sentence-like phrasing would doubtless disapprove of the gulps of air Reeves draws in a line like “won’t you [breath] tell me [breath] where my love [breath] can be.” Not being a jazz singer, he would be unlikely to appreciate the parallel rhythmic effect Reeves gets from those breaks. Then again, that Reeves is herself a jazz singer has not always been that easy to ascertain.
Earlier this year, her label, Blue Note, released The Best of Dianne Reeves, which, excepting a few tracks from her uneven Vaughan tribute, The Calling, serves as a sampler of the contrived, dated, and overarranged work that delivered her from astonishing youthful promise to virtuoso entombment. That she was recording beneath herself became thrillingly apparent when she stopped the reconstructed “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at JVC in 2000, singing two Ida Cox blues with a slow, cagey, sexy humor and rhythmic bravura and then chiming with Dr. John on “Come Rain or Come Shine.”
She stopped her Zankel Hall performance, too, with a slow grab bag of blues lyrics (“got the blues in the morning,” “got rocks in my bed”), punching every phrase in the pocket, drawing appreciative laughs in all the right places, using melisma with a sultry and (here’s a novelty) sparing cool. She is a tremendous blues singer, a natural—maybe she undervalues the knack because it comes too easy for her. Yet during that performance and during the 16 a cappella opening measures of “You Go to My Head”; a duet with brushes on “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”; an authoritatively inventive mid-range scat solo on “I Remember Sarah”; an original evocation of childhood, “Nine”; and an even more expansive “Skylark”; and an even more reflective “Reflections” than on the CD, one had the sensation of being in the presence of a pantheon jazz singer.
Reeves’s trio—pianist Peter Martin, bassist Reuben Rogers, and drummer Greg Hutcherson, whose restraint in this context was as impressive as his full-throttle attack with Joe Henderson—was discreetly employed in full and in part, undulating with the singer’s every impulse. The arrangements are scrupulous, and Reeves respects what doesn’t need fixing. At the concert and on the CD, she also indulged a Vaughan-like Brazilian jones with guitarist Romero Lubambo, eschewing the samba rhythm only on “Lullaby of Broadway,” which overdoes a wordless refrain but otherwise achieves a fresh deliberation of words and melody. It took Vaughan and McRae years to escape industry compromises. It would be nice to think that if Reeves continues in this vein, Zankel Hall will no longer be sufficient to contain her audience.