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Nnenna Freelon: Blueprint of a Lady

Though the immensity of their respective talents is obvious, it’s hard to imagine two more diametrically opposed female jazz singers than Billie Holiday and Nnenna Freelon. Holiday was a study in bruised self-doubt, surrounded by demons. Freelon is an exhilarating exercise in bronzed, healthy self-assurance, surrounded by angels. Which may make Freelon seem an odd choice to steer one of the umpteen Holiday tributes that have been filling store shelves and radio playlists of late.

But Freelon rightly justifies it by quoting from Lady Day herself. “No two people are alike,” said Holiday, “and it’s got to be that way with music or it isn’t music.” And so we get to observe slices of the Holiday songbook from entirely fresh, forthright perspectives.

Where, for instance, Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” was borne out of too-long subjugated pain and fear, Freelon’s emerges from anger blended with fiery motivation for overdue social change. Where Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” was cautiously sage, Freelon’s is celebratory. Where Holiday’s “Now or Never” was slyly coy, Freelon’s is sweetly, cleverly aggressive. And so it goes, with Holiday’s glass half empty, Freelon’s half full, yet both delicious to sip from.

Originally Published