Jazz Singer Nnenna Freelon Works Through Grief With New Album And Podcast "Time Traveler," Nnenna Freelon's first new album in more than a decade, is a passionate expression of love enduring as she grieves the loss of her husband and other family members.

Jazz Singer Nnenna Freelon Works Through Grief With New Album And Podcast

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Phil and Nnenna Freelon were once a power couple - Phil, the lead architect for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History; Nnenna a Grammy-nominated jazz singer, composer, actress and playwright. Phil Freelon died in 2019, and now Nnenna has recorded an album that is dedicated to him. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Nnenna Freelon's album "Time Traveler" is a love letter to her late husband, Phil, who she met in 1978 on a mutual friend's porch in North Carolina.

NNENNA FREELON: He was my heart. He was my soul mate.

DEL BARCO: They enjoyed an exciting, full life of work, travel, friends and family. After Phil was diagnosed with ALS in 2016, Nnenna paused her music career to care for him until the end. Now she's back with a new album reinterpreting songs they enjoyed during their 40-year marriage.


N FREELON: (Singing) The moment I wake up, before I put on my makeup, I say a little prayer for you.

"I Say A Little Prayer For You" - now, that's a ditty for you when you're in one place in your life. But when you've experienced the loss of your great beloved, it takes on a whole nother feeling.


N FREELON: (Singing) Together, together. That's how it must be. To live without you will only mean heartbreak for me.

DEL BARCO: Freelon says music has been a part of her grieving process.

N FREELON: Music is like a time traveler, taking you to the past and where you can exist, like in a science fiction movie, in the past and in the present.

DEL BARCO: "Time Traveler" is her first album in more than a decade. She wrote the title track, which includes a voice memo Phil left her on a cellphone.


PHIL FREELON: The fact that I love you so very much. The sound of my voice will give you fond memories of our time together.

N FREELON: I told him, I want you to let me know you're OK. No (imitating ghost), you know, no weirdo stuff like that. But let me know (laughter). Please let me know that you're OK.

DEL BARCO: She says he did in different ways. Besides that voicemail, he left behind little notes in random places and more.

N FREELON: I was just moving things around, trying to clean just to be doing something. And a picture fell out of a book, and it was a picture of him standing in front of a bridge. I had never seen that picture before. You know, little things that - girl, you just can't make it up. They do let you know that there is life beyond what we understand is life on this side of the veil.

DEL BARCO: After Phil died, Freelon lost her younger sister to cancer. Her dog died, too. She says singing and recording again was her way of dealing with all that grief. Living alone in the house she once shared with Phil, the pandemic lockdown gave her quiet time she needed.

N FREELON: Time became both an enemy and a friend because it was very, very lonely. And it seemed like the hours just stretched on forever. No reason to do anything, even get out of bed. And slowly, slowly, I began to look at the time that I had and try to find containers to put my grief in. And that's what this record is, ultimately.


N FREELON: (Singing) Time traveler.

PIERCE FREELON: She's kind of gone into chrysalis and emerged this powerful butterfly warrior mom.

DEL BARCO: Pierce Freelon included a song his mother wrote and recorded years ago on his new album, "Black To The Future." He says he's watched his mother's grief take on many forms.

PIERCE FREELON: I've heard her describe it as a shape shifter. You know, some days, it means just kind of sobbing into your sleeve. Some days, it means I need to get out here and do some gardening. Some days, it means I'm going to write some music and poems.


N FREELON: (Vocalizing).

DEL BARCO: Nnenna Freelon has also created a new podcast to share stories of her life. It's called "Great Grief."


N FREELON: Where is the sun? Where is the sun?

DEL BARCO: Freelon sees the podcast and her new album as companions.

N FREELON: The very fact that I can create in this space of grief - to me, that's a superpower.

DEL BARCO: Nnenna Freelon says grief has made her more creative, more compassionate and more willing to take risks. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.


N FREELON: (Singing) Time after time, I tell myself that I'm so lucky...

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