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The Voyage Out

The stirring music of self-taught vocalist Nnenna Freelon invites comparisons to Natalie Cole and Sarah Vaughan.

The life of a jazz singer can be rough. First you're in London, in early July, opening for George Benson at the historic Royal Albert Hall. Then it's a full week of dates at Ronnie Scott's, Europe's premier jazz club, in nearby SoHo. Then you're off to Copenhagen for a day, then down to Spain and the Canary Islands for a few jazz-festival performances. You pass through Madrid and Rome on your way to Naples, do a gig, then you plan to hop a plane to Catania, a town at the base of Mt. Etna in Sicily.

Only Mt. Etna is erupting right when you're flying in, and ash has covered the runway. All the planes are diverted, so you're sent to Palermo. It's a three-hour drive to Catania that gets you in at three in the morning. You sleep for only a few hours before you're off to an early sound check at the concert hall -- the ash in the air has screwed up the audio equipment, as well. Then, if you're Nnenna Freelon and you've made it through all this, it's three days in Graz, Austria, and then on to a benefit concert in Boulder.

If you're trying to interview Freelon, of course, this means you must rely on a cell phone that is not working, which is to say: You're kind of out of luck. Fortunately, her music speaks pretty eloquently all by itself.


They say it takes jazz singers ten years of work, on the road and constantly performing, to hone their talents and make their marks. That puts Freelon right on schedule for blowing up. Certainly she's kept the right company, having toured with drummer T.S. Monk, son of jazz legend Thelonius, as well as opening for the aforementioned Benson, singer Al Jarreau, elder statesman Tony Bennett and the unimpeachable Ray Charles. A four-time Grammy nominee, Freelon recently appeared as herself in the Mel Gibson romantic comedy What Women Want. There is already talk of her performing with a Broadway touring show.

Born Chinyere Nnenna Pierce in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Freelon is a product of the church. She describes being "called" to sing there at a young age, and her music education consisted of many Sundays cutting her teeth at the Union Baptist Church. She was influenced by gospel standards, and then by jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, as well as classic soul groups like the Chi-Lites and the Spinners. Freelon never trained formally, but she continued to sing at church and, as she grew older, at nightclubs around Boston. She has integrated her various influences into a unique style that is at turns spry and gentle, smooth and gracious and down and dirty.

Freelon was actually planning a career in healthcare until 1990, when she attended a jazz-education forum in Atlanta and met Ellis Marsalis, father of Wynton and Branford. He became a mentor, and with his help she secured a record deal with Columbia, for whom she recorded four albums. In 1996 she switched to Concord Records. Her first release on the new label was Maiden Voyage, an ode to the power of women (all the songs were at least co-written by women). The title track is a reworking of the classic by Herbie Hancock, who contributed his usual probing, measured piano playing to Freelon's version. The song is about falling in love, and the lyrics were written by Hancock's sister, Jean, who died in a plane crash several years ago. For Freelon, the song became "an expression of universal love and that feminine spirit."

That feminine spirit is often missing in jazz, where it is difficult for women who are not vocalists to gain recognition. It's as if the industry's culture is only truly comfortable with women performers when they're in the "traditional" role of singer. Freelon is trying to change that: Her touring band features pianist Takana Miyamoto and percussionist Beverly Botsford.

Soul Call, Freelon's latest album, builds on the theme of spirit. It's a collection of songs that range from gospel to jazz to pop. Recording an album of tunes with which she's had a particularly strong spiritual connection has been a pet project of hers for years. The church elders at Union Baptist believed that jazz was the devil's music. (Who knows what they'd have to say about modern rock and hip-hop.) Freelon's blending of genres is an effort to dispel that old thinking and tap into the emotional intensity at the root of all great music. She says she wanted to sing the songs from the "inside out," which she does with two recorded versions of "Amazing Grace," the first song she ever sang in public. The leading cut, a duet, is a wispy jazz aria. The second, with a trio, is bluesier; it's as if she arrived at church through the back door and down a long, sweaty alley.

Yet, despite her connection with the spiritual powers of the world, there's plenty of flesh and blood in her music, as well. If you had to distill Freelon's eclecticism, you might compare her two latest albums to Natalie Cole's breezy and symphonic Unforgettable -- crossed with something richer and sexier, à la Sarah Vaughan or Betty Carter. She is able to underpin Burt Bacharach's peppy "I Say a Little Prayer" with a funky bass and a hustler's vocal savvy. She is also able to transform Stevie Wonder's cosmic "If It's Magic" into an earthy, folksy prayer. Freelon shifts from an intimate tune like "Women, Be Wise," where she scats as smooth as silk, to a standard like "Button up Your Overcoat," which is as urbane as a pair of leather gloves.

Most spectacular is the Jerome Kern/ Dorothy Fields song "I Won't Dance," from a 1935 Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire vehicle called Roberta. With that kind of pedigree, you'd expect a kind of high-society polish, and Freelon's version doesn't disappoint -- she makes great use of flute and saxophone in the chic arrangement. But then, out of nowhere, she kicks the tune into a boisterous Latin groove that makes you want to toss away the black tie and champagne and shake your ass on the dance floor.

Freelon's concert in Denver will benefit the Lupus Foundation of Colorado and Donor Alliance. It will feature food and drinks at an outdoor tent at Boulder's Chautauqua Auditorium, followed by a raffle (the grand prize is a pair of tickets on Frontier Airlines). In the evening, there will be a live performance of Diary of a Nurse: The Story of Jane Edna Hunter as part of "Destination Freedom," the local series of black radio dramas put together by donnie l. betts. The radio play is about the life of the nurse and activist who founded the National Phyllis Wheatley Association. After the performance, Freelon will sing and chat for about a half hour, and she will return later for a full-blown concert.

For event organizer donnie l. betts, the inflammatory disease strikes close to home. His sister Maddie died from lupus in the early '80s. Another sister, Sandy, also has lupus; betts donated his kidney to her in March of 2000. Lupus strikes women more often than men, especially women of color; more than a million Americans have been diagnosed. There is no known cause or cure.

Betts is hoping to raise between $6,000 and $10,000. "It's a silent killer that needs to have light brought on it. That's why I'm doing the benefit."


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