Over the course of 13 recordings and hundreds of live performances, Dianne Reeves has developed a reputation as a versatile and vivacious singer who takes her fans on a rollercoaster ride of emotions and rhythms. Her CDs have included myriad styles, from mainstream jazz to more pop-oriented material. For many years now, she has been favorably compared to such masters of jazz singing as Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughan, and hailed for her seemingly unlimited potential. Now, with the release of The Calling, her tribute to Sarah Vaughan, it appears that Reeves has truly arrived.
“I knew somewhere down the line that she would do a project like this,” says the album’s producer, George Duke. From his well-appointed studio, known as LeGonks, tucked away in the Hollywood Hills, he adds, “It just seemed like it was logical to have Dianne be an extension of those who’ve come before her — Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan and others.” Duke has played an integral part in her career development and success — he’s produced all of Reeves’ Blue Note albums since she signed with the label in the late ’80s, and he also happens to be her cousin. Coincidentally, Duke also played keyboards on Vaughan’s final album, Brazilian Romance, in 1987.
Reeves says she looked at the album as a way of connecting with a legend who’s been a strong, positive influence on her. “It’s a celebration of a great, great jazz artist — Sarah Vaughan,” she says from her home in Denver, “and an opportunity for me to pay tribute to someone who, in the very beginning of my career, through her music, really opened doors for me artistically in terms of the possibilities of voice and expression.
“Previously, I did a record called The Grand Encounter that featured a lot of legendary musicians, like Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, Toots Thielemans and the late, great Joe Williams. These were people who encouraged me or whom I had the opportunity to work with at a very, very young age. As a mature adult, I wanted to consciously make a record with them. Then, on the Quiet After the Storm album, I paid tribute to Cannonball Adderly. That’s always been very, very important to me, because the way that you keep memories alive is by talking about people.”
Duke says that he and Reeves were already talking about making the Vaughan tribute three years ago when she was working on an album called Bridges. “She hadn’t picked the songs,” he notes, “but she was laying the groundwork for it. We did Bridges and we did the live record, In the Moment. While doing that, her head was into the string recording [for The Calling] and arrangements were being done.”
Duke has worked with many top-flight artists through the years, including Al Jarreau, Jeffrey Osborne and Rachelle Ferrell. He doesn’t think of himself as having any particular production style: “I just try to keep the quality of the music up, with the help of [my engineer] Mr. Eric Zobler. I’ve never been the kind of producer who wanted to have a stamp — where someone could say, ‘Okay, this is a George Duke record.’ You can recognize a Babyface [recording] or some of the other producers who are out there now. But the artists I work with are generally not those types. They really have something to say and their own point of view. And I think all their records sound different. The only George Duke stamp is that, hopefully, it sounds unique to the artist; that’s what I’m about.”
Reeves agrees with Duke’s self-assessment, noting, “When you’re in the studio with him, he’s someone who really allows your voice to shine. He doesn’t impose himself on your sound. From the very beginning, when we started working together in ’87, I started to learn to trust my own instincts and my own voice in a recording. I always have this thing where I feel recordings will live a lot longer than you will, hopefully, so you want to put down what you’re really feeling.”
Although Reeves isn’t very technically inclined, she did have an idea of the type of sound she wanted for the disc. The sound of her CD is very “live.” Before production began, Reeves conferred with Zobler and Duke and decided to keep the sound as natural and unprocessed as possible, while still sounding like a modern recording.
“I think I got what I wanted,” she states, “because I worked on everything prior to going in the studio. There was a range of things I had worked on to make certain things feel right for me. I had been listening to lot of different records with strings. And more than anything, I wanted the strings to sound warm but also full, because we weren’t using a full orchestra. [It’s a 42-piece orchestra.] One of the things I was really excited about was that I had a great engineer, Eric Zobler, who’s done a lot of records.
“But I didn’t know if there was a miking technique or something he could use to really bring it a little closer, make it richer and work with it to make it sound bigger than it really was. I know we didn’t want to double it or anything like that. We just wanted it to be what it was, and I think we achieved that. I really like the sound of it. There was a lot of separation that we were able to use with the drums and bass. I used a really old, reworked RCA 44 ribbon mic that they had at the old Capitol Studio. It’s a real thick tube mic and it’s real warm. I can get up close to it and make it really personal.”
Unfortunately, that microphone selection didn’t work out. Once in the studio, they found its sound was too archaic and wanted a more modern sound. “We did one vocal with the 44 ribbon,” says engineer Zobler. “It sounds quite nice, actually, but that particular vocal had to be processed a lot more than the other ones in order to sound uniform. So we ended up using the Telefunken 251 for vocals. I also used some Royer ribbon mics in different places for the orchestra.”
As a producer, Duke is extremely organized and always has a plan of attack. But having a “feel” for whatever he’s working on is the main imperative. “That never gets lost,” cites Zobler. “That’s George’s best quality as a producer, I think. He never loses track of the ‘feel’; it always has to feel good. If you listen to the way he plays, everything he plays feels good. He can’t help himself — he’ll play a cello part and it’ll feel good and be funky.”
However, re-creating the mood of a bygone classic jazz era with 21st century sophistication, incorporating both an orchestra and a jazz ensemble, is far from being a casual endeavor, even for George Duke. Logistically speaking, Reeves’ new project was probably the most complex of any he’s been involved with. “It worked out pretty well,” he says. “But if I had to play, it would have been awful. Instead, I was able to listen and make decisions. I had a computer there and I made notes. The hardest thing was keeping the schedule going. If it was all the same orchestra, it wouldn’t have mattered, but every song was different. Players were coming in and out, and we had to make sure we were finished before the next player could come in. Once we got through that first day, we were rolling.”
With his plate full, Duke opted to have someone else do the arrangements. “I generally do all the arranging for my records,” he points out. “Dianne asked me if I wanted to do them for this one and I said, ‘No, I think I need to be in the booth. There’s enough to do and this is a big project, so let someone else do it.’” So Billy Childs, an emerging Los Angeles-based jazz/classical pianist and longtime colleague of Reeves’, did the bulk of the arrangements. Supplementing Childs’ work for several tracks was Robert Freedman.
“She approached me and wanted to do the tribute in a unique way,” Childs recalled in a telephone interview from Denver, where he was overseeing the arrangements for a performance Reeves was doing with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. “She wanted to explore the influences that we both had come from. We were influenced by music of the late ’60s/early ’70s, music [that had] a lot of different genres put together. Fusion, they called it then, but the term has a backlash now. But back then it was real music; it was positive and powerful. So our approach was to do music that represented different things and try to organically synthesize and put them together in unique ways.”
“Dianne has worked with Billy for years,” Duke says, “so he instinctively knew what she wanted. She had to say very little to Billy. Bob [Freedman], on the other hand, was someone whom she didn’t know. She actually went to [his home in] Phoenix and sat down with him for a few days. They went over the material that he was going to do, talked about how she wanted it and what she expected. Once the arrangements were finished, Billy would do a little piano mock-up to explain how everything would work. She would then approve or disapprove, sometimes requesting slight alterations such as key changes and breaks. Essentially, she was intricately involved in every piece of music. It was almost like designing a dress for her; the music was designed for her. This all happened about three months before we went into the studio.”
Fortunately, the time recording The Calling at O’Henry’s in Burbank went quicker than the preparation leading up to it. The studio, a favorite of both Duke and Zobler, was selected for its large recording area and ample isolation space. Reeves comments, “I think every record that I’ve ever done has been a live record. I think it’s important to have that intimate exchange with the musicians. Once the string players realized what this project was about, they would listen to the playback and take notes to make sure everything was correct. It was really more than a recording session; it was a celebration, because everyone wanted it to be right. And that was nice.”
Included in the jazz ensemble were well-known compatriots of Reeves’ including pianist Mulgrew Miller, guitarist Russell Malone, saxophonist Steve Wilson, trumpeter Clark Terry (who is one of the singer’s original mentors) and others.
Reeves and Duke averaged about three tracks per day for four days. Zobler admits that the prospect of recording the orchestra was “intimidating for someone like me, because I don’t do that much of it. When I started out at San Francisco State University, I learned to record orchestras, big bands and different types of music. I’ve always known how to do it and have done it for years, but I’m not a film scorer. I don’t do it day-in and day-out every week. I do it a couple of times a year. So, for me, it was little nerve-wracking. That first day we had some technical problems, which pushed back the start times and made everybody nervous about getting all the work done. But by the end of the day, we did get everything done.” The orchestra was tracked live using three mics spread across the front of the room.
“I always try to record everything, as much as possible,” Zobler says, “because a lot of gems go by when the tape is not running or the disc is not spinning. If something is not right sonically, I deal with it later as best as I can, because the performance is always senior to the sound. If you have a great performance and poor sound, you still have a great performance. But the best of both worlds is to get them both and that’s what I try to do. But whenever they’re ready to go, I’m ready to record.”
Due to the acoustic focus of the project, Zobler used very little signal processing. “I kept that to a minimum with mostly just a little EQ and using mic placement [instead],” he says. “My intention was to get as natural a sound as I could. I used some compression on Dianne and on the bass. Occasionally, I would compress the harp — when you have a lot going on musically and there’s a harp in there that you want to speak through, you have to compress it. I did use some overall bus compression on the whole project, because I wanted the record to not be too soft. There’s been a race on for the last five years to get hotter and hotter CDs, something that went away when CDs first came out. Everyone reveled in the dynamic range for about three months and then the race was back on. I actually don’t like that there’s no headroom anymore; everything is just squashed up to the top. But that’s kind of the way it is these days.”
Mixing on the project took place at Duke’s studio, using his 52-channel Euphonix CS 2000 console. Other equipment in the studio includes a Euphonix R-1 hard disk recorder, an Otari RADAR 24-track digital deck, Jensen mic pre’s, a TC Electronic M3000 reverb unit, EMT 250 reverb unit, a Finalizer, various compressors and other gear. Although Reeves isn’t a “hands-on”-type particularly, she usually likes to be around for the mix. However, she was only able to watch the mix for the first day or so due to concert date commitments. After years of working with Zobler and Duke, she knows her work is in good hands.
“What I love about them,” Reeves says, “is that when Eric is there, his instrument is the board. It becomes a part of the music, and he’s the person that’s over the music. And then here you have George, who has great technical and musical knowledge. I hear things, but not like he does. So it’s really cool that everyone allows everybody to do what they do the best. That makes it really wonderful.”
Zobler feels that the mixing went smoothly overall. “Most of the takes were live. We might have gone in and fixed a phrase here or there, but some of the tracks didn’t have any fixes at all. I always end up with one or two vocal comp tracks. We might have alternates on one line and we haven’t decided, so we’ll save it until everything is in the proper perspective. When you can hear everything, sometimes it’s easier to make a decision on which take you like.
“The two tracks that were most challenging were ‘Fascinating Rhythm’ and ‘Obsession,’ because everybody was just wailing and going 90 miles an hour. And with an orchestra and jazz quartet both going at it, you really have to work at getting it all balanced. Also, the drummer was in a booth by himself and was hearing the orchestra through his headphones. So his dynamics for me were wider than the orchestra’s. So I had to chill him out a little bit and make him match the orchestra. But he was great and played his behind off. ‘Fascinating Rhythm’ was a wild arrangement that Billy Childs did. He was on hand for most of the mixing, and, of course, he wants to hear all the parts. And I want to hear them, too, so it’s tough getting it so that you hear everything. As Quincy would say, ‘There’s only so much water that can go down the pipe.’”
Zobler has nothing but praise for the Alesis MasterLink, which allowed them to master at 96k, 24-bit. “That $1,500 to $1,700 machine sounds amazing,” he says. “Up until this project, we were mixing to Pro Tools. But when this Alesis showed up and I was able to mix a higher sampling frequency, I pretty much moved over to that. I’m looking forward to when Pro Tools moves up to 96k. But if I hear something that sounds better, I’m going to use it.”
Summing up the orchestral recording, Duke says, “I feel blessed to be able to work with my cousin, the talent that she is. Believe me, she’s like a daughter to me. Hopefully this album will do wonders for her and Billy’s careers — he’s the unsung hero in all of this. He even worked all night on the arrangement for the title track, which was decided on at the last minute during the sessions. He did a great job. Overall, I think it was a very, very successful project and Dianne sounds great.”