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Nnenna Freelon: Live

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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.

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