Arts: Jazz - Ladies' night lifts jazz festival to new vocal heights

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IT DOESN'T take more than a couple of women on stage with half a dozen men to make it ladies' night at the London Jazz Festival. Dianne Reeves and Renee Rosnes are two of Blue Note's best established female recording artists; both have been with the label for more than a decade. Beyond that, they have little in common.

Canadian-born, New York-based pianist Rosnes seems sometimes to save her best work for other people's bands. The great tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson has been a long-time admirer. In front of a slightly perplexed R&B-orientated audience, she led a supple and unpredictable contemporary jazz trio, powered by exciting drummer Ray Drummond, through a short set of standards.

Monk's "Round Midnight" and Ellington's "Fleurette Africaine" were exquisite; Lennon and McCartney's "With a Little Help From my Friends" wasn't. But most people seemed to have come for the second half, and the large auditorium was either half full or half empty.

Vocalist Dianne Reeves has trodden an ambiguous musical path since being picked up by Blue Note at the peak of a new jazz revival back at the end of the 1980s. Her debut was half acoustic jazz, half R&B, and it turned out to be the career template for a jazz vocalist signed by a major label.

This tendency to bounce from from jazz to R&B and world music and back again makes more sense when she's on stage. Released from the bland production style that has blighted many of her recordings she's a surprisingly exciting and demonstrative musician, hurling trademark soul inflections across scat, swing and funky world music with aggressive abandon and delivering it all with the richest, warmest voice.

An ingenious transformation of "Morning has Broken" into something so atmospheric it was almost a different tune entirely kicked off a set that would include standards, Cuban-tinged dance music and Ellingtonia before closing with rabble-rousing funk.

An athletic band, featuring star bassist Reginald Veal and ex-Miles Davis percussionist Munyungo Jackson, kept the pressure high. But the highlight was a simple but compelling version of Ellington's "Mood Indigo", accompanied only by Veal's lazy, walking bass.

Considering Dianne Reeves is only one of Blue Note's major league vocalists (Cassandra Wilson does something very different, but just as brilliantly) the concert said a few reassuring things about the state of the jazz vocalist's art. It also brought this year's London Jazz Festival to an exciting close.