She’s long and rightly been considered the heir apparent to the legacy of Sarah Vaughn, one of her self-admitted long time heroines and influences. So, it isn’t surprising to find that Dianne Reeves shares similar trajectories with Vaughn in being an essential singer for any music aficionado to have in their catalog; but the catalog is one that is both uneven and can be cleanly divided into their early, more fluid sound and their heavier, more mature one, even when their pregnant voices deliver every bit of the lush and luster one could ask for. Once dropping a new album nearly every year like clockwork (though this latest is her first in six years), Reeves is prolific in her output and there is always a sophisticated, if not earthy, sheen to the proceedings, seamlessly blending jazz with root and world music.
Unfortunately, however exciting that artistic hybridity, Reeve’s work ethic does not always yield a “must-have” work -- not for those familiar with what Reeves does when the work is operating on all cylinders on such classic albums as: I Remember, Art & Survival, Quiet After The Storm, The Calling: Celebrating Sarah Vaughn or The Palo Alto Sessions. Accordingly, Beautiful Life is a beautiful work in its musicality, but not a necessary one, lacking urgency and conviction. Despite the long gap between this work and 2008’s When You Know, this is Reeves operating on automatic pilot, not at her most inspired.
Largely mixing covers with a couple of originals starring a bevy of eye-popping guests, for those familiar with their work, Beautiful Life has much potential but plays it so by the book as to neuter it. The dark moody microphone share with Gregory Porter is one of those tracks you’d go right to if you understand the potential of these two powerhouses coming together for the first time, but “Satiated (Been Waiting)” tries too hard for bluesy torch song that is undone by an arrangement that does little to give either any chance to stretch or exchange moments, claustrophobically making them sing with one another for almost the entire composition. It’s a fine enough moment, but an ultimately unsatisfying one. The acoustic guitar and piano moment with jazz dynamo Lalah Hathaway on the Marley classic “Waiting in Vain,” here smooth jazzed out of any of its original flavor, doesn’t fare much better. The melodramatic film score production on a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams (featuring Robert Glasper)" feels dated and plodding, forsaking lightness in tone for a deliberate, conversational approach, only coming alive for the choruses - but that’s owed more to the original writers than to the performers (an original, “Cold,” has a vaguely similar melody line on its hook). Gregoire Maret’s harmonica brilliance aside, “Long Road Ahead” made us feel every rock and pebble along its drawn-out gospel-tinged stretch. While honest in its intentions and polished in its A-list live instrumentations, too much of a Beautiful Life’s pacing is plaintive and contemplative to the point of meandering and feeling weak of pulse.
There are life support moments of vibrancy that are welcome exceptions, such as the Raul Midon duet “Tango,” which finds Reeves bridging her world music and Latin jazz influences together in a searing vocal opener that showcases why Reeves has always been considered the real deal since day one. An original cut with jazz ingénue Esperanza Spalding is enveloped in scented floral notes and a just left of center arrangement that has a whiff of the kind of story telling qualities that made Reeves’ hit, “Better Days,” so successful, only without that song’s infectious hook. “Feels So Good (Lifted),” a swan song duet with Reeves’ cousin, George Duke, and Nadia Washington boasts a stronger melody than several of the reworked covers and a more invested lead vocal from Reeves. A spare cover of “Stormy Weather” featuring Tineke Postma’s soprano saxophone isn’t a definitive version, but it is a rapturous, straight-ahead take worthy of Reeves when she’s willing to go for it. Unfortunately, she and her collaborators goes for so little in their competent paint brushing of this Beautiful Life, the results are more pale watercolors than an engrossing and enduring oil. Moderately Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson