Nnenna Freelon

Nnenna Freelon
Photo Credit: Tim Owens

Nnenna Freelon

Blessed with a honey-laden voice and a calm, spiritual manner, vocalist Nnenna Freelon is Dr. Taylor's guest on this edition of Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center. Though hers is still a budding young career, Freelon displays a maturity and wisdom that enraptures this enthusiastic Kennedy Center audience. During enlightening conversation with Dr. Taylor and the audience, Freelon shares ideas about the formation of sound and musical inspiration; throughout the show she demonstrates these points with stunning performances sung straight from the soul. She begins this delightful hour with the Rogers & Hart classic "I Didn't Know What Time It Was."

Freelon was something of a late bloomer in terms of her touring and recording career. This is largely due to the fact that the Cambridge, MA native chose family life, raising her three children and nurturing her marriage before embarking on the performing road. Those weighty responsibilities did not still her voice, however; she chose to sing and teach from her home base in North Carolina before embarking on a full blown performing career. Early in the show, Billy's question about Freelon's initial musical experiences yields a familiar response: "I started singing in the church, like so many others...." She suggests that her influences included several "not famous people," as well as such familiar names as Nina Simone and Billy Eckstine, artists whose records her parents played at home. "Its important to expose your children to a wide musical environment," she says, grateful that her parents did just that.

After Freelon settled in North Carolina, she immersed herself and her family in an extensive artist residency in a small coastal town through the state arts council. While tending to her family's needs first and foremost, Nnenna followed her grandmother's sage advice regarding those singing aspirations. "I did something that my grandmother told me: 'bloom where you're plantedí, "don't get on a bus and go to New York or L.A., sing where you are." Freelon loves singing standards, but adds her own special touch to everything she does. Other songs during this show include a lovely ballad that has become something of a Nnenna Freelon signature, Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark." One of the warmest moments of the evening comes when Nnenna offers her interpretation of the Antonio Carlos Jobim classic "Dindi;" her intro explains for the audience what that tune means to her, as she dedicates it to Jobim's memory.

Freelon speaks succinctly about what she means by coloring and shading the songs she chooses to sing, and about the architectural processes she engages when building a song. Prior to taking the audience's questions, Nnenna engages them in a bit of audience participation as she demonstrates some of her teaching methods with children dealing with what she refers to as "sound sculpture;" in a humorous exchange, she beckons the audience to emulate several natural geological phenomena. Also among tonight's selections is a version of Wayne Shorter's classic "Footprints," with Freelonís original lyrics. Later, she responds to an audience query about whether she would ever approach John Coltrane's classic tune "Impressions" with lyrics by saying "Not every jazz tune should have words."

An audience question about her approach to the jazz tradition of scat singing yields a particularly telling and enthusiastic response about keeping this jazz singer's use of syllabic sounds original. As for what's in her already promising future, Ms. Freelon, ever the teacher, tells Billy that she desires to write a cultural creativity curriculum to assist teachers in developing their overall educational curriculum.

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