Nnenna Freelon (vocals; b. 1954)
Homefree (Concord Music)
Nnenna Freelon is one of those artists you really must see live. While her albums are exceptional it is the live performance that has always been the clincher for me. I have to admit, I hadn't listened to a Nnenna Freelon album in awhile but listening to the new record Homefree (Concord) I was reminded why I became a fan just under 20 years ago.
Freelon interprets soul, pop, jazz and the American Songbook with the versatility not seen in most singers today. For anyone who hasn't heard Nnenna Freelon before your first impressions may be Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughan but Freelon has developed her own distinct voice over the last two decades. This is an artists that when you hear her voice coming through the speakers you know it and she commands your attention.
Homefree, Freelon's 7th studio album, is another beautiful reconstruction of the American Songbook with delicate and well crafted arrangements of "The Very Thought Of You," "You The Night And The Music," "Skylark" and more. One of most exciting and refreshing things I've always enjoyed about Nnenna Freelon is her ability to turn a standard into her own. Her arrangements are not what you immediately expect from a jazz singer. I sometimes think how Tony Bennett, Peter Gabriel and Bryan Ferry can rearrange a classic and make you think they actually wrote the song.
The band are another reason for Freelon's creative versatility. With some truly elegant work from Brandon McCune (piano), Kinah Ayah (drums), Wyane Batchelor (bass) and the rest of her ensemble Freelon takes the listener on luminous journey filled with emotion, passion and occasional swathes of funky soul that shines on every tune. From the funky opener "The Lamp Is Low'" to the one Freelon penned number "Cell Phone Blues", Homefree displays her rich gift as both a truly fascinating vocalist and original arranger.
The one startling number for me was towards the end with the standard "Lift Every Voice And Sing" which includes a rap by Pierce Freelon. It's a little jarring but on second listen it settles into the Freelon cannon as another interesting revision on a classic. As with such vocalist as Claire Martin and Mark Murphy, Nneena Freelon has always been a risk taker and appears to enjoy the challenge of re-imagining what can be done in the vocalists songbook.
Homefree is definitely a diverse and rewarding experience. If you end up getting this, you might also want to check out Better Than Anything (Concord) which is a compilation of her previous six albums and makes for the perfect companion piece to Homefree.