Nnenna Freelon: Overjoyed

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Nnenna Freelon
By Randee St. Nicholas
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Nnenna Freelon
By Randee St. Nicholas

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Nnenna Freelon is hot. It’s a scorching July afternoon, the mercury hovering just south of 100º, with one master blaster of a thunderstorm looming on the horizon. Peering out from the stage erected at one end of an empty Confederation Park, Freelon wonders aloud what Mother Nature will be up to when, a few hours hence, her outdoor concert at the Ottawa International Jazz Festival gets under way. Meanwhile, there are more pressing concerns to contend with.

Freelon has been traveling since 5 a.m. and now needs to squeeze her soundcheck into 20 minutes. She’s tired and hungry. She’s not happy with the microphone’s range. She senses that one of the monitors is too loud, and she’s a little too aware of the festival’s press rep hovering nearby, signaling that it’s time to depart for a live radio interview across town. Other, more divaesque artists would snap like sun-baked kindling. Not Freelon. Exhibiting the patience and perspicacity that have long been Freelon trademarks, she shrugs off the mounting frustrations with an easy, “Que sera sera” smile.

As dusk settles, the stormy weather seemingly at bay, she’s back on stage, diplomatically greeting the Canadian audience in both English and French. She launches into her 90-minute set with a gently effervescent version of Stevie Wonder’s somewhat obscure “Bird of Beauty,” lifted from her freshly minted labor of love, Tales of Wonder. The near-capacity crowd is polite, if not overly effusive. Among contemporary female vocalists, Freelon isn’t yet as familiar a figure as, say, Diana Krall or Dianne Reeves, and the assembled multitude is copping a wait-and-see attitude.

Perhaps tuning into their collective wariness, Freelon soars into a blistering rendition of Bill Loughborough’s “Better Than Anything” which, with its sly references to a dozen or so jazz giants, helps turn the tide. After a straightahead reading of Cole Porter’s “I Love You,” coupled with Freelon’s spicy oiling of the creaky Depression-era anthem “Button Up Your Overcoat,” she’s got ’em where she wants ’em, and is free to chart a more self-fulfilling course by serving up another half-dozen Wonder-inspired selections from Tales. As she tiptoes through the final verse of her hauntingly temperate treatment of “The Tears of a Clown,” a soft rain starts to fall. Cottoning to the moment’s sweet symmetry, some 6,000 Freelon converts are on their feet, ready, indeed eager, to embrace her daringly funky, hipster-meets-hip-hop version of “Body and Soul,” stomping for two encores, then wandering off into the now-starry night with proper appreciation for one of the most undervalued voices in modern jazz.

An hour later, Freelon’s stretched out on a sofa in the festival’s hospitality suite. The shoes are off, the wine is chilled and, despite having been up and running for 20 hours straight, she’s ready to talk about anything and everything. What becomes immediately evident is that Freelon is a rare blend of estimable qualities—smart as Oprah, sassy as Sarah Vaughan (to whom she’s been endlessly compared), striking as Phylicia Rashad and as refreshingly self-aware as only a true risk-taker can be.

She bristles at the suggestion that she was a late bloomer. It did, however, especially by ageist music industry standards, take a while for Freelon to find her professional voice. Born and raised in Cambridge, Mass., she says her “calling” came at age seven while performing “Amazing Grace” at the Union Baptist Church. But the call went long unheeded. Though blessed with progressive parents who, she says, “dragged my brother and sister and me kicking and screaming to every cultural event going,” there was no familial support for fledgling show business aspirations. “I don’t think they ever saw it as something you could do as a career,” she muses. “If, especially with my mother, you were singing for the Lord, that was OK. Secular expression she was way less comfortable with. She never put me down for it, but made it clear that there was a big difference between singing ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ with your girlfriends and deciding you want to go to Detroit to be like the Supremes.”

Accepting of her parents’ unwillingness to send her to music school, Freelon opted instead to focus on “other talents. I could write. I could speak well. And they seemed like skills that could be developed so that I could make a nice living and support myself,” she says.

Ultimately relocating to Durham, N.C., and building a comfortable life for herself as a wife, mother and health-care administrator, she was, nonetheless, “unhappy and confused. I wasn’t sure why, because everything around me—the three healthy children, the dog, the cat, the station wagon, the devoted husband, the nice house, the whole bit—was what I said I wanted, but I didn’t feel good inside.”

By the late ’80s Freelon was, she admits, “really driving everybody around me a little nuts, especially my husband. Then one day he turned to me and said, ‘You are not going to use us as an excuse for your unfulfilled dreams. You want to sing, sing.’ Thanks to him, I finally said, ‘Uncle! Permission granted to do what’s burning inside of you.’ If it were a movie, that’s when the violins would come in, the lights would come up and it would just be a lovely, tender moment. In reality, that’s when the real work started. I had a dream, but no skills. Zero. Zilch. I didn’t know eight tunes. So I set forth certain personal challenges that I could control, like learning a new song every week, learning to play the piano or challenging myself with bebop tunes.”

One early champion was a Durham record-store owner, Alf Stevenson. “The shop was called Sweet Emma’s, with nothing but old vinyl,” she remembers fondly. “I’d come in and say, ‘Oooh, Nancy Wilson!’ and he’d say, ‘OK, from Nancy we go back to Dinah [Washington], then to Little Jimmy Scott.’ He took me by the hand back through the lineage, turning me on to all these wonderful voices that were part of the heritage. I finally began to understand that this was about more than just a voice or a style or a genre. All that stuff my mother and father had exposed me to started making sense.”

Gradually expanding her repertoire and reputation, Freelon graduated from tiny, local clubs to larger venues throughout the Southeast. In 1990, a fortuitous encounter with Ellis Marsalis led to a meeting with music executive George Butler that led to a contract with Columbia Records. Freelon’s eponymous debut album, a syrupy, strings-heavy affair, was something, she says, “I had very little choice in. It came on the heels of Natalie Cole’s success with her tribute to her father, so Columbia was looking for something similar.” The album failed to ignite much interest among critics or record buyers, but it did earn Freelon the first of her five Grammy nominations.

Next came Heritage. Freelon requested that she be allowed to record the all-standards collection with her own band, “but they wouldn’t let me—not that I had any slouchers on that album, what with Kenny Barron and Christian McBride, but to me this type of music really shines when there’s been some history with the players. I’m very proud of Heritage, but it wasn’t really in my comfort zone.”

Listen, Freelon’s third and final Columbia release, proved to be a mixed blessing. She recalls that “the entire jazz department was in a state of disarray. It didn’t seem like anybody was at the helm.” As a result, the album was “sort of all over the map.” Still, it provided her with the chance to blend Kurt Weill, Alec Wilder and Gerry Goffin with several of her own compositions, a satisfying experience she likens to “playing in a sandbox, trying a little of this and a little of that.”

Though “deeply disappointed” by her departure from Columbia in 1994, she considers the two hardscrabble years that followed among the most valuable of her career. “During that period,” she says, “I worked my butt off and was learning, learning, learning. I learned more about the craft of singing than at any other time in my life and really got back to basics by working on my live performance.”

When Concord Records came calling in 1996, Freelon felt she’d finally “come home. It was so great to be in a situation where people respected your ideas and weren’t second-guessing you. The first album I did for them, Shaking Free, was one of the easiest to record because we just basically came in from the road and did what we’d been doing. It was great. I had no idea that recording could be so easy.” The title, perhaps also a sly reference to the constrictions she’d faced at Columbia, was, she says, chosen to convey the message that “this album was all about independence. About being honest. About shaking free of other people’s expectations.”

Freelon remembers her follow-up release, Maiden Voyage, as “a perfect example of the kind of support I was getting at Concord. I went to [label president] Glen [Barros] and [producer] John [Burk] and said, ‘Look, I really want to celebrate women songwriters.’ They didn’t have a single negative comment. All they said was, ‘Great. Go for it.’” The resulting album, which ranks among her most critically acclaimed, is not only a sterling salute to such disparate talents as Dorothy Fields, Laura Nyro, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Blossom Dearie but also testament to Freelon’s increasing assurance as a songwriter, most notably on the self-affirming “Sing Me Down.”

With the new millennium came an increasing desire by Freelon to break free of traditional, linear definitions of “what it means to be a jazz singer.” With the superb Soulcall, which marked her debut as a producer (“I kinda thought it would be easy,” she laughs, “but it wasn’t! It’s a real challenge to produce yourself and remain objective”), she successfully harnessed various influences, from gospel and soul to hip-hop and funk, bringing them into harmony with her evolving jazz sensibility. Soulcall also introduced her evocative “One Child at a Time,” a gentle plea for the nurturing of young talent that, she says, “came out of an experience I had with some kids at a songwriting workshop in Washington, D.C.” Since then, no matter where her schedule takes her, she tries to find time to make a musical connection with local children. “You have to go where the young ears are,” she explains. “They’re not at clubs or concerts or hearing it on the radio, but I want to make sure they develop an appreciation for good music. The reality is we’ve pulled music programs out of the schools and then we complain when all that kids give back to us is rhythm and words. That’s all we’ve left them! So, I come to them with a celebration of the melody. We work on melodic and lyrical ideas to help them cultivate a respect for things that are beautiful.”

Soulcall, which garnered Freelon her fourth and fifth Grammy nominations, moved her closer than ever to the major leagues. The album’s healthy sales and heightened critical attention put her on the periphery of the same playing field as Cassandra Wilson and Dee Dee Bridgewater, and earned her the creative freedom to realize her dream of shaping a full-length tribute to her musical hero, Stevie Wonder. There have, she observes, “been several instrumental apperceptions, but if your not dealing with his words you’re overlooking a lot of his genius. These songs will be here in another 40 years, which is certainly not something I can say for many pop tunes I’ve heard.”

She had, of course, dipped into the Wonder songbook before, most recently for Soulcall’s shimmering “If It’s Magic.” Facing the challenge of paring Wonder’s enormous catalog to fit a 12-track disc, Freelon’s “first decision was that I was going to cover tunes from all through his career. Choosing the first five tunes was the hardest. Once I’d made those selections it then became a question of balancing the project. Even then, though, it was still difficult, because there were so many songs I wanted to deal with. ‘Golden Lady’ was, for example, a tune that I really wanted to include, but we just couldn’t get it together.” Balance is, indeed, key to Tales of Wonder’s powerful appeal, with Freelon paying equal homage to Wonder the young hit-maker (“My Cherie Amour”), the innovator (“Superstition”), the politicized poet (“Black Orchid”) and the incurable romantic (“Send One Your Love”).

Long before the album reached store shelves, Freelon knew she was laying herself wide open for a fresh round of “this ain’t jazz” criticism. The same vacuous condemnation that continues to plague Diana Krall and Jane Monheit started to swirl around Freelon when Soulcall hit its genre-crossing stride. Like Krall and Monheit, Freelon dismisses jazz purists’ put-downs, pointing out that “when I covered ‘Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair’ I don’t recall anybody saying, ‘Hey! She’s going too 18th century!”

An outspoken advocate of “judging things solely on the basis of their artistic value,” she argues, quite sensibly, that “all that matters is if it’s good or not. That’s very personal and very subjective. I can take ‘I don’t like it.’ It shows that a person is allowing his or her own ears and own heart to tell them the truth.” A keen admirer of any artist “who’s willing to take a few risks and deal with a tune in a different way,” Freelon points out that “I’ve been accused on [Tales of Wonder] of not being as funky as Stevie. Who could be? And who would want to sound just like the original? We claim we want something different but at the end of the day when something arrives in a different form it frightens us or makes us feel uncomfortable.”

Throughout the past few months, Freelon has been inundated with e-mails from frustrated Wonder fans who, much as they admire the album, wonder why their favorite Stevie track wasn’t included. She could, she says, easily assemble a Tales of Wonder Two, but doesn’t think such a commercially driven initiative would provide her with much creative satisfaction.

Freelon is looking for satisfaction by stretching out again. “We’re coming up on what would have been Thelonious Monk’s 85th birthday,” she says, and Freelon’s been “writing lyrics to some of his tunes—’Locomotive,’ ‘Misterioso’ and others. So I’m looking at recording some Monk music, but I’m thinking of doing it for kids. I would love to get very young ears attuned to his magic. I’d also like to do some writing. I’ve never set myself the challenge of writing an entire body of music for a project, so I’m thinking about that, too.”

Try, however, to pin her down to specifics of these forthcoming projects and she happily confesses that “none of those cakes are baked. I’ve decided to give myself permission to not have a plan in the short term.”

For now, she’s content to savor the hard-won realization that “I’m stronger than I’ve ever been in my life. I’m doing what I love, [which] makes me a better human being. When criticisms are leveled or I hit bumps in the road, that’s what sustains me. If somebody else can’t dig it or doesn’t like it, that’s OK, ’cause I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. When they take attendance and call the name Freelon, I call out, ‘That’s me! I’m in place!’ I’m in class, on time and under budget.

“And that’s a really, really great feeling.”

Originally published in October 2002

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