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Diane Reeves on working with George Clooney, and all that jazz

Ahead of her Belfast Festival show next month, US singer Dianne Reeves tells Chris Jones about her brief, but very memorable, film role alongside the Hollywood heart-throb

Dianne Reeves may not be a household name here, but hers is a career that 99% of musicians would happily swap for their own. Four Grammy wins, a further four nominations and a 30-year CV that includes work with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Harry Belafonte, Rosemary Clooney and Sergio Mendes: she is a legendary figure in the jazz world and, as she tells us ahead of her visit to Belfast, equally inspired by music of many other genres.

"You know what, jazz is my foundation but I never view myself as just a jazz singer," she says. "I don't look at music in (terms of) genres because when I grew up artists shared with each other.

"You would hear Ella Fitzgerald singing The Beatles' music and you would hear rock musicians playing with jazz musicians – Miles Davis with Ravi Shankar or something. It was without boundaries or borders; music was just music and that's the thing that inspired me the most."

Reeves' show at the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's next month will be her first visit to the city, and it comes in the wake of the February release of her 20th album, Beautiful Life. The record was made against a tragic backdrop, as Reeves lost both her cousin and collaborator George Duke and her mother in quick succession over the last two years.

And yet despite that double sadness, and as its name would suggest, Beautiful Life is an uplifting collection of music, a mixture of jazz-flavoured originals and covers of pop and rock songs by Marvin Gaye, Fleetwood Mac and Bob Marley.

"The music helped me to make it through," she explains. "And I just thought, 'I'm thankful to be here; I'm thankful for my beautiful life'. There are songs on there that deal with all kinds of things that I've gone through; that we all go through. All of it can serve to make you better or worse, and I've chosen for it to make me better."

Reeves' story is one of a lifetime dedicated to music.

It was in the blood – her father, who died when she was very young, was a singer; her mother played the trumpet; her uncle played bass with the Denver Symphony Orchestra. "Not everybody in my family was a musician but if they didn't play or sing they played great music and had a love for art, period," she says.

And after a childhood of singing, it was her Uncle Charles who introduced her to jazz singers like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, and the young Dianne was smitten.

"When I started getting serious and deciding that singing was for me, I was about 12 years old," she says.

"I was in middle school and I remember thinking, 'This is what I want to do'. In a lot of ways, it really helped me to get through school.

"I had all the teenage angst and all of that kind of stuff but I was involved in something that made me feel empowered. I had a vision of what it was that I wanted to do. It really helped me to stay focused."

Born in Detroit and raised in Denver, Reeves then moved further west to Los Angeles in the mid-70s, which is where she got her first taste of touring with the group Caldera. "They were extraordinary musicians from all over Latin America who took their traditional music and gave it a jazz sensibility," she recalls. "That was my first big break, and after that it was just being out there and doing concerts. For my first record, people would book me in a club in New York and the lines would be around the corner. So it was real subtle, but there were more people listening to me than I knew existed. It was always going up, but slow. But that's cool!"

Fast-forward a few years to the early '80s and Reeves found herself singing lead vocals with the legendary Brazilian musician Sergio Mendes, and then calypso king Harry Belafonte, both of whom gave her the opportunity to try out even more styles of music.

"I worked with Harry for about three years and travelled the world with him," she recalls. "It was great, he was all first class and pretty dignified. It was what we would call old school, but it was the real deal.

"You rehearsed until you knew the songs like the back of your hand. If the people weren't standing for me, he'd say, 'We need to go back and work on the arrangement because you need to get them to stand'. So he was patient. "He was hard sometimes. But it was good because it made me disciplined in areas that I wasn't.

"The whole experience was like an open door to what could happen for you in the future."

That future turned out to be a series of successful solo albums through the '80s, '90s and 2000s, as well as those Grammys. But Reeves admits that for a time, she let success go to her head. "There was one point where I started believing the hype," she says.

"I did a record called Never Too Far and the record was just sailing. People start telling you you're this and you're that, and like my mother used to say 'You start smelling yourself', which means you think everything revolves around you. I think it lasted for a little less than a year and I didn't like what I saw about myself. I had become lofty and judgmental.

"And I am thankful for the kind of friends that I have that said, 'You know what? You need to quit', and showed me myself. And it was so, so right. Your mind can play tricks on you. So when I got my feet back on solid ground, I was okay. But I got a little taste."

Back on terra firma, Reeves had a taste of Hollywood in 2006 when she appeared in the George Clooney-directed movie Good Night, And Good Luck, playing a singer in a jazz bar. She gives an audible, girlish gasp at the mention of Clooney's name. "Oh my god," she says, "he is extraordinary because he's real, there's no facade.

"And he's not hard on the eyes at all! But it's his charm and his intelligence and his wit and his sincerity that makes him even more incredible. Working with him was just amazing.

"He was the director and he put me in my comfort zone," she adds. "I had a couple of little lines but I had no idea that I was even acting, because he had me doing what I do naturally.

"And I knew that I was to sing the way that singers sang in that period. That was great because I have films that I collected before YouTube of all kinds of great jazz vocalists and here we were, I could be all of them. I pulled from Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Ella, Carmen McRea and it was lovely to make this hybrid of all of these singers that I loved." Reeves' great love is music, not movies though, and at the age of 56 she continues to tour, playing gigs and festivals all over the world – and enjoying it as much as she ever has. "The word 'retire', that's just not part of it," she says. "I don't want to do that. I love being out there, singing and being current and staying in the mix. There are so many great artists out there, and they inspire me to want to stay out there and keep doing stuff."

Dianne Reeves plays the Elmwood Hall, Belfast, on Sunday, October 26. For details, visit www.belfastfestival.com

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