Freedom Suite: Let the Music Speak

Nnenna Freelon and son Pierce craft a natural, engaging blend of jazz and hip-hop on Freedom Suite

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The Beast

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During the second decade of Nnenna Freelon’s illustrious career, she expanded her role as a jazz singer by exploring gospel, pop and Latin music, as well as the works of Stevie Wonder and Burt Bacharach. Now she can add hip-hop to her repertoire, thanks to Freedom Suite, a recent collaboration with hip-hop quartet the Beast and a host of other revered underground hip-hop and R&B artists. The project features Phonte, 9th Wonder, Kooley High, Yahzarah and Darien Brockington, all of whom are based in the fertile North Carolina music community revolving around Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill. Freedom Suite was released as a free download via the website Okayplayer's jazz channel The Revivalist: http://revivalist.okayplayer.com. It can also be downloaded on a “name-your-price” basis at
http://thebeast.bandcamp.com, in MP3 and lossless formats.

The project is the brainchild of 27-year-old rapper, North Carolina Central University college professor, and leader of the Beast, Pierce Freelon, who happens to be the jazz vocalist’s son. Nnenna Freelon’s last disc, 2010’s Homefree (Concord Jazz), foreshadowed this hookup with a take on “Lift Every Voice and Sing” that showcased her son’s rapping skills. The mother and son team also came together on a soundtrack to M.K. Asante Jr.’s The Black Candle, an award-winning documentary on Kwanzaa. Still, few people expected her to delve into hip-hop as thoroughly as she does on Freedom Suite. “Genres are boring,” argues Freelon, 56. “There’s only two kinds of music: good music and the other kind. My standards are to make the best music and to be involved in the best creative experience as I can.”

On Freedom Suite, Freelon doesn’t trade in her commanding singing for a chance to tap into her inner Nicki Minaj. In fact, there’s even a striking rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” that is grooving and meditative. “I don’t have a history with hip-hop, which is sort of the point,” she explains. “On this project, I’m standing on firm ground of those things that I’ve built over the years, which is a non-standard approach to the standards and an interest of music outside the pure jazz genre.”

Freedom Suite takes noticeable cues from past jazz and hip-hip mash-ups, such as the late Guru’s Jazzmatazz series and Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor band. Suite also includes covers of hip-hop and R&B classics—Mos Def’s “Umi Says” and Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing),” rearranged as “Rise Above the Sky”—that came out during the zenith of the late-’90s neo-soul movement. In between the songs, spoken-word vignettes from ?uestlove, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Amiri Baraka and Angela Davis help convey the political slant, with commentary ranging from Marsalis clarifying his brother Wynton’s view on hip-hop—Branford argues that Wynton doesn’t dislike all rap—to Davis taking the African-American and hip-hop communities to task regarding homophobia. Overall the music explores themes of artistic and philosophical freedom (and is unrelated to Sonny Rollins’ classic recording of the same name). Explains Pierce, “We’re able to talk about the issues that are important to our community and that are important musically.”

But for all its top-notch personnel and, to a lesser degree, the rather unexpected artistic move from Nnenna, it’s hard to argue that Freedom Suite is all that innovative. Many similar discs of varying degrees of success have been released in the past two decades, and the ideas Pierce discusses have obvious roots in the early ’90s jazz-rap movement. “We had a lot of projects to look at that we had been inspired by,” Pierce admits. “There were some things that we took from other projects and there was also some [different] things that we really wanted to do.”

He goes on to say that one of the primary goals for Freedom Suite was to have an intergenerational dialogue set to music; another was to create a more organic synthesis between jazz and hip-hop that relied less on samples. “If you look at a project like Jazzmatazz,” he says, “that touted itself as an experimental fusion of hip-hop and jazz and listen to it critically, the fusion was sampling old jazz and soul records. We wanted to take a different approach by actually bringing in jazz composition, horn and string arrangements and live instrumentation to some of the songs.”

Even with the best artistic and socio-political intentions, many jazz/hip-hop hybrid efforts get the side eye from hardcore jazz and hip-hop fans alike. Pierce pays naysayers no mind while arguing that most people just like to hear their music in nicely packaged categories. Says the MC, “The Beast have had a lot of feedback, where a lot of hip-hop heads ask, ‘Where’s the boom bap?’ or say, ‘You need some 808 [drum-machine beats] in there—something that’s going to make my neck break!’ The reality is that we’re a band that’s very jazz-influenced. With jazz, it’s the same thing. They expect a certain sound when you mention Nnenna Freelon.”

“Jazz people only talk to each other,” Nnenna adds. “We complain about the other music that isn’t jazz as being non-important and non-relevant. And it’s just boring.” She goes on to explain that jazz has always had its cynics throughout its continued evolution. “Freedom Suite was an amazing opportunity to engage in a dialogue that has been long, long overdue; for us to talk to each other and for us to disagree. Forget the political correctness; let’s just talk—and let the music do the talking.”

Originally published in March 2011

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