Apart from a 2008 “best of” compilation, there has been a five-year silence since Nnenna Freelon’s last release. But as the densely imaginative Homefree demonstrates, neither her sass nor her sizzle has diminished an iota. Ever since she resuscitated “Button Up Your Overcoat” with her funkified treatment on 2000’s Soulcall, Freelon has reigned as the most soulful of the contemporary jazz-vocal elite.
But Freelon’s appeal extends beyond soulfulness: At her core there is rock-solid candor that increases the worth of even the most pedestrian tunes. Here, for example, the frilly “I Feel Pretty” is transformed into an Oprah-worthy paean to self-worth. As such, her vitalization of the West Side Story ditty fits the album’s overarching “home” theme, expressing the hard-won ability to be at home with one’s self. Other examples—the “returning home” sentiment of “Theme From Valley of the Dolls,” the hearthside coziness of “The Lamp Is Low” and the sense of community evoked by the closing anthems “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “America the Beautiful”—are more literal.
Thematic exploration takes a backseat to interpretive ingenuity, however, particularly on a loose-limbed, reggae-fueled “Get Out of Town,” a lurking “You and the Night and the Music” that conjures images of sleek jungle cats, and an acutely sensual “The Very Thought of You” that recalls Sarah Vaughan. Most striking is Freelon’s dual-bass-driven “Skylark,” as superb an exercise in pure, unvarnished emotional integrity as you’re likely to hear.