Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Nnenna Freelon: Before & After

Time travel and jazz vocal greats, both famous and less known

Nnenna Freelon
Nnenna Freelon (photo: Chris Charles)

Nnenna Freelon recently released her 11th album and first studio album in a decade, despite—but also, in a sense, because of—her personal travails of the last five years. After her husband, the noted architect Philip Freelon, was diagnosed with ALS, Nnenna became his primary caregiver. It was a devastating three-year decline as the neurodegenerative disease rendered him increasingly helpless until his death in 2019, the year of their 40th anniversary.

Out of the crucible of that experience, the celebrated soul-jazz singer and six-time Grammy nominee has crafted Time Traveler (Origin), a tribute to her husband. It is filled with love songs, including standards and 1970s soul hits they adored, but, in typical fashion, all reinvented and refracted through the prism of her jazz sensibility.

How did Freelon find the strength, and even the time, to balance the conception and recording of these tracks with the strenuous demands of caregiving? “Some of [them] were actually recorded in a quiet space when I had a moment,” she told JazzTimes via Zoom from her Durham, North Carolina home. “But, because I wasn’t able to focus all my attention, I doubted whether it was good enough to put out. It took the encouragement of some people very close to me to say, ‘Girl, this is powerful, you need to finish this project.’ And my husband also did not want his diagnosis of ALS—which is the worst—to stop me from living. He said, ‘You are a healer in song. Don’t stop doing what you’re doing.’”

Freelon started her recording career in her late thirties, winning contracts with Columbia and (later) Concord Records. Two of her albums on the latter label, 2001’s Soulcall and 2005’s Blueprint of a Lady – Sketches of Billie Holiday, received Grammy nominations for Jazz Vocal Album of the Year. Over a 25-year career, she has performed with such major artists as Ellis Marsalis, Al Jarreau, George Benson, Earl Klugh, Take 6, and Ray Charles; she currently has a show called Georgia on My Mind: Celebrating the Music of Ray Charles. She also has written and starred in musical theater productions, gives master classes and workshops, and is a longtime advocate for education and the arts.

The hiatus from performing necessitated by her caregiving role, then enforced by the pandemic, has had a silver lining for Freelon: “I am in a very creative space that I did not expect. I expected to be rolled over like a Mack truck and just consumed. But I find that there is a fire and a creative energy inside this loss that is a gift. Now it’s not a path I would suggest for anyone who is creatively stuck, but … I’m happy for any scraps I can get.”

Freelon’s career was founded on the American Songbook—“albeit wildly rearranged versions,” she noted. In the future, she said, she’s planning to use “some of that same creative energy to craft original music.”

For her first Before & After, we played her a selection of great vocalists, vintage and contemporary.

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring all the songs in this Before & After:

1. Cassandra Wilson
“Come On in My Kitchen” (from Blue Light ’Til Dawn, Blue Note). Wilson, vocals; Tony Cedras, accordion; Brandon Ross, guitar (octave), arranger; Kenny Davis, bass; Lance Carter, drums. Recorded in 1993.

BEFORE: [Smiles, shakes her head, then—when Wilson finishes first refrain—throws back her head and laughs] Woo! That’s so nice. That’s Cassandra! I love it. I love that arrangement! When things come to you from a place you don’t expect and tickle you —I love that! I love the permission we have in this music. I don’t remember having heard that before. The particular choices allow her voice to cut right on through and tell her story. And she is quite the storyteller.

AFTER: Oh, yes, yes! That was a great record … One of the things I appreciate about Cassandra Wilson is her fearlessness to do things that were different. Sometimes success can be as much a boogeyman as the pursuit of it. So you have a really great record, and it does really well, and what do people want you to do? The same thing you did before. She resisted that and tried some different things. And I respect that and love her for her fearless pursuit of her muse, defying notions of what a jazz singer is supposed to do.

2. Dinah Washington
“Teach Me Tonight” (from Complete Dinah Washington on Mercury, Vol. 4, 1954-1956, PolyGram). Washington, vocals, with Hal Mooney & His Orchestra. Recorded in 1954.

BEFORE: [Closing her eyes, smiling and grooving] Dinah?

AFTER:
Her voice—it’s got a clarity. It hits me right between my eyes. Every word. You are not confused. But it has an angle on it, kinda like if she wanted to cuss you out, she could do that too. She has an edge on that voice that is singular. You know who channeled a little of Dinah was Dakota Staton—in the attack. The way she would not breathe into the note, but she was just [snaps fingers to illustrate] right … on … top … of it.

Some of these early singers really framed the tradition for us, because every voice was an unmistakable voice. I don’t know what happened to that. I love me some Dinah, though. If you want to learn a song as a young singer, she’s a good one to listen to because you’ll be clear on the lyric. Her phrasing is very direct. She’s talking to you, telling you a story.

She influenced a whole generation of singers, not only in jazz, but in pop and R&B.
Indeed. I think one of the things that the pandemic can offer is the delight of going into one artist’s repertoire and just immersing yourself in it. When you start listening chronologically, you hear how a singer evolves, if they lived long enough. It’s very instructive to see that the voice changes with life experience. In jazz, that adds to the final story. Like we always say, you don’t retire from this—you just put down that microphone when there’s no more breath in the body.

You learn something about the art of singing over the years. You may not have the ability to hit that note and sustain it like you did when you were in your twenties, [but] you learn how to blow a kiss to the note, how to infer, [to] have fun and not take yourself so seriously.

3. Artemis
“If It’s Magic” (from Artemis, Blue Note). Cécile McLorin Salvant, vocals; Renee Rosnes, piano, arrangement; Anat Cohen, clarinet; Melissa Aldana, tenor saxophone; Ingrid Jensen, trumpet; Noriko Ueda, bass; Allison Miller, drums. Recorded in 2020.

BEFORE: [Listens intently to entire track. When the singer hits a resonant low tone, Freelon chuckles softly] Oh, that’s beautiful, oh my God! So delicious. I know who the voice is because I’ve heard it before. But I don’t think we can say [we] know who this artist is because we have heard a particular track. I mean, I could say her name, and I could be correct, but let me tell you what I feel.

Her voice falls on my heart like a warm, cozy quilt … so comforting, so sweet. She sings as if she has given herself permission to sing. That’s huge. She does not sing as if she is trying to become something. She has inhabited the song. She is that which she sings. There is no pretense. I look forward to hearing Cécile continue to grow and become; she’s like a beautiful flower.

AFTER: Had I not heard this particular track before, I might have wondered [who it was]. She has several voices in her toolbox, all of which she uses.

I’m so glad you chose this song. It’s one I’ve recorded. And we love that the singers who are coming along—because we’re all a part of this continuum—are feeling free to look at Stevie Wonder [who wrote “If It’s Magic”], to look at Marvin Gaye, to look wherever they choose for inspiration. And to put it into their sense of who they are, and let it come out. And the arrangement … ooh, la la!

I used to say I felt like a bit of a dinosaur at the end of a dying tradition. I don’t say that [anymore]. There are so many young, vibrant, beautiful, interesting voices that are emerging now that it warms my heart. And all of them [in Artemis] lead groups on their own … how lovely to come together and say, “Let’s create together.”

“You don’t retire from this—you just put down that microphone when there’s no more breath in the body.”

4. The George Shearing Quintet with Nancy Wilson
“The Nearness of You” (The Swingin’s Mutual!, Capitol). Wilson, vocals; Shearing, piano; Warren Chiasson, vibes; Vernel Fournier, drums; Dick Garcia, guitar; Ralph Pena, bass. Recorded in 1961.

BEFORE: [Listens all the way through, then sighs deeply] I miss that woman like I miss my left foot.

So it is … ?
Nancy, Nancy, fancy Nancy.

AFTER: She was a great mentor and a wonderful help to me in my career. A good person to measure your steadfastness [against] in this thing we call jazz singing. So many records—she had a life in this music. And, in my opinion, never got the high praise that she was due. You can hear a little Dinah flowing through there, but she was her own voice. She was also a mother, a grandmother, and a classy, classy human being.

Can you identify the pianist?
[Thinks] I can’t. Who was it?

George Shearing.
Oh my gosh!

This is from 1961, one of her early albums.
[In Irish accent] I was just a babe at the time [laughs]. You know, she was someone who was in my life before I ever met her because we listened to her music at home. I want to say it was [her manager] John Levy who introduced us. But she’s the kind of person that, once you meet her, it’s like you’ve always known her. And I so respected [her]. Aging on stage is an act of fearlessness for a woman—I don’t know about for the guys—which she made look like a walk in the park. I sang at Carnegie Hall [at], I think, her 75th birthday celebration. And I was like, if 75 looks like that, sign me up right now! Such grace and beauty. When she passed away, I felt like I lost a mom. There will never be another Nancy Wilson. 

5. Andy Bey
“I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” (from Ain’t Necessarily So, 12th Street). Bey, piano and vocals; Vito Lesczak, drums; Peter Washington, bass. Recorded live at Birdland, NYC, in 2007.

BEFORE: [During the long piano intro, she looks puzzled. Then when Bey’s voice finally enters, she chuckles. When Bey does a vocal run, she laughs with delight.] Is he playin’ the piano?

Yes, he’s playing too.
I love this man! People don’t talk about him [enough] … I don’t know why! More people need to talk about him—Andy Bey!

AFTER: You hear how he uses that baritone and slides right down? [Bey does another impossible vocal run; she waves her hand and throws back her head.] This is another example of a person who is still with us but who has not gotten his props. His voice is one that I try to expose as many people to as I possibly can. When people say, “Who should I listen to?”, his name is at the top of my lips.

We can talk about his range. But range without an idea is just range. You can feel the church in this voice. You can feel the blues in his voice. The musician that he is allows him to play with freezing [a note], so sure of where he is in the song that he can play around with that. And he can do something that—I don’t know what you call it—the only thing I can say is he can sing underneath your clothes! I mean, he just gets all up into your little spaces where it’s like, wait a minute, I didn’t say you could come in there! Another fearless singer … and such power! Sometimes when you have a lot of different colors in your palette, you [don’t] know what to do with all of that juiciness. He’ll throw you a trill, and then you may not hear it again because he was using it to tell that particular story, at that moment, and he’s moved on.

Before we move on, could you say a word about the kind of patience that he shows in singing a ballad like that?
Well, because Andy plays the piano, you see how long it took him to even come in and sing. And then he took a ripe standard, one that’s been on the tree for a minute, and just set a table for us. And he took his time. He put the plates out, then he went back to the kitchen and he got the fork. And, oops, I forgot the knife. So he went back to the kitchen for the knife, and then he laid that down. Oh well, where’s the butter, do I have any butter? But because you trust him, you wait on it. Now, somebody else who could do that was Shirley Horn! She made you wait for it. And you were happy to wait! There’s an authority, and a comfort with the space. He’s got you: “Don’t worry. I’ll give it to you in my own time.” And you’re happy to sit in that space with him.

You don’t come out the gate with that. A lot of times you hear young, inexperienced people, [or] people who don’t have the experience of trust, and they’re rushing to the next note, afraid you’ll think they don’t know the song, or whatever is going on in their heads. [Andy] ain’t trying to prove anything to anybody. He’s totally in his element. And when someone is comfortable in their own skin, they make you feel that way.

6. Gladys Knight and Vince Gill
“Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing” (Rhythm, Country, & Blues, MCA). Knight, vocals; Gill, vocal and guitar solo; Mark Goldenberg, acoustic guitar; Freddie Washington, bass; Kenny Aronoff, drums; Reggie Young, electric guitar; Benmont Tench, Hammond C-3 organ; Lenny Castro, percussion; Nat Adderley, Jr., piano; Robby Turner, steel guitar [pedal]; Don Was, producer. Recorded in 1994.

BEFORE: [Listens to entire track, smiling but puzzled] I don’t know who her duet partner is.

So you know the female singer, but not the male?
Right. I hear Gladys. But I’m not sure …

AFTER: [Laughs] Ah, I love it!

It’s from a 1994 album that was a series of duets pairing an R&B singer and a country singer.
So you are bringing up a very interesting conundrum. Vince Gill operates in a certain world. Gladys Knight operates in a certain world. Nnenna Freelon operates in a certain world, but these worlds are made-up worlds. They are social constructs … [but] the fact that they can make beautiful, fun music together proves that they don’t occupy worlds so dissimilar.

I think the producers wanted to show that it is a social construct and that these two styles of music have tons in common.
You’ve got country music on one hand, the blues on [the other] hand—you explain to me, what is the difference? You’re looking at stories that are stemming from folk traditions, from real-life experiences, and [there’s been] an effort to create distinct classes, for basically racist reasons; that’s my feeling. Look at an artist like Ray Charles, who was able to occupy all those worlds simultaneously. He did Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music.

And if we hear someone like Tom Jones or Michael McDonald, who embody some of the soulful characteristics, but they obviously don’t look like a person of color, then all of a sudden our minds are blown, right? Or if we find a Marian Anderson who’s singing in the classical world, does she get permission from us to sing like that, in that European tradition, as a Black woman? It’s so important to all of us to begin to interrogate our own ideas of what it means to be a jazz singer, what it means to be an African-American. Who owns the music? All of those questions are super-important.

Allen Morrison

Allen Morrison is a music journalist, musician, jazz critic, lecturer, and a regular contributor to JazzTimes and 
DownBeat. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, Jazziz, American Songwriter, and Departures. He lectures frequently on jazz history aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. Before becoming a full-time journalist, Allen worked as a music publicist and a pianist. He is working on a book on how musicians and non-musicians hear music. He maintains a blog at AllenMorrison.com.