Nnenna Freelon: Live

I was barely a year old when Anita O’Day, Louis Armstrong, Gerry Mulligan, Thelonious Monk and a dozen others warmed up a Newport summer day; three when Judy Garland scored the comeback of the century at Carnegie Hall; seven when Ella swung through Juan-les-Pins; nine when Sinatra teamed with Basie at the Sands. But because somebody had the foresight to preserve these landmark occasions on tape, I know every note that was played, every phrase that was sung. Such is the obvious magic of live recordings. Still, live albums remain an immensely tricky business. Unless you’re Peggy Lee and insist on unnatural sweetening (how cheated I felt to learn that so much of her Basin Street East album had been genetically altered in the studio), you’re at the mercy of the venue, the audience, the recording engineer, the waiters, the air conditioning system, the cutlery and, third-row center, the guy with the hacking cough who refused to stay home, as you lay yourself bare, warts and all, for the entire world to hear now and forever.

I admire any artist who has the guts to record under these conditions, but am utterly impressed when someone does it with the style, grace and intelligence of Nnenna Freelon, captured here in great voice and spirit at D.C.’s Kennedy Center. I’ve seen Freelon live. She can work an audience like nobody’s business. She’s mesmerizing. And that same enchantment is evident from start to finish of this, her first live disc.

She has the smarts to give the audience what it expects (celebrated numbers like “Button Up Your Overcoat” and “Body and Soul”), add a sampling from her latest studio outing, Tales of Wonder (here represented by “My Cherie Amour” and “The Tears of a Clown”), workout new material (including a sizzling rendition of Milton Nascimento’s “Nothing Will Be as It Was”), throw in a delightful surprise (a playful “If I Only Had a Brain”), straddle that fine line between cute and cloying in her patter and bring it all home with her signature “Circle Song.”

It may not be Ella in Berlin or Sarah Vaughan at Mr. Kelly’s, but I’ll bet some kid who just celebrated his or her third birthday will, 40 years hence, be mighty glad to discover it exists.