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Nnenna Freelon: Soulcall

Nnenna Freelon is one of the best and brightest of the new generation of jazz vocalists, as her two Grammy nominations attest. She’s also won the Billie Holiday Award from France’s Academie du Jazz, the Eubie Blake Award and two Lady of Soul Soul Train nominations. For her sixth CD, her first as a producer, Freelon searched for standards, gospel and contemporary jazz that spoke to her heart. But she also appears to be eyeing accessibility and to expand her audience beyond industry and critical acclaim. Freelon’s gospel leanings (absorbed through hours with church choirs) is addressed in two versions of “Amazing Grace,” the first a duo with Takana Miyamoto on piano, the second lushly backed by James Williams on piano, Ray Drummond on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums. Both are fresh interpretations, with the latter better showcasing Freelon’s vocal expressions and range. She also dips into the Rodgers & Hart book and borrows traditional church music for “You’re Nearer/Nearer My God to Thee.”

Her standards, similarly, are joyfully fresh: an a cappella run through “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” backed by Take 6; a swinging “Paper Moon”; a sassy, musically busy “Better Than Anything”; and a beautifully articulated “Just in Time.” Contemporary influences come into play in “Let It Be Me,” with arrangement, programming and unobtrusive tenor sax by Kirk Whalum, and a light R&B treatment of “Button Up Your Overcoat,” given a pop feel by Joe Beck on guitar and Matt Shulman on trumpet; Chris Potter adds get-up-and-shake-it tenor sax. The Burt Bacharach and Hal David fan club is expanded with an over-the-top “I Say a Little Prayer.” Freelon’s originals, “One Child at a Time” (with Sounds of Blackness) and the title track, reflect the singer’s commitment to changing children’s lives.

Soulcall is a positive, stirring addition to the Freelon canon.

Originally Published