The Triumph of Music: Nnenna Freelon, Homefree

By Daniel Garrett

Nnenna Freelon, Homefree
Produced by Nnenna Freelon and Nick Phillips
Executive Producer: Ed Keane
Concord Music Group, 2010

“There truly is no place like home.  The road will always beckon but for now, come in, sit down, take off your shoes…welcome home.”
—Nnenna Freelon

Nnenna Freelon’s voice is like a bird in flight, focused, with energy, a sharp precision; and she has a horn-like enunciation, and a sometimes mellow huskiness; and in the Ravel piece, “The Lamp is Low,” a song of intimacy and seduction, Nnenna Freelon, an artistic child of Ella Fitzgerald, a niece of Billie Holiday, a cousin of Dianne Reeves and Dee Dee Bridgewater, is playfully insinuating.  It is a nice beginning for her album, Homefree: it is a promise of pleasure.

Nnenna Freelon has command of her instrument, her voice, and she is confident and earthy, with great energy, in “I Feel Pretty,” making the Bernstein-Sondheim song one of self-reflection rather than vanity: love has been transforming.  The flugelhorn solo is one of melodic curls, smoky curls; and the band has significant vitality.  “The Very Thought of You” is a Ray Noble song of contemplative appreciation; and in it, aware, sensual, emotive, Freelon has the kind of authority that is rooted in experience and experiment, the kind that cannot be faked.  The tenor saxophone music of Ira Wiggins is both forceful and rich, and there are little runs on the piano by Brandon McCune.  Freelon’s voice can be grainy or pristine in the “Theme from Valley of the Dolls,” a composition by Andre and Dory Previn about existence, about feeling adrift and confused and wanting to go home.  It is a thoughtful theme, previously performed by Dionne Warwick, a singer whose musical elegance has no pretension, a verve that knows no artificiality, excess, or vulgarity.  Freelon’s performance of it is one more demonstration that jazz is a music that lays claim to diverse repertoire.  Experience, values, and vision are embodied in language, the language of songs, of literature, of daily use; and if our language is limited, it may circumscribe what we can know, and what we choose.  The songs that have become standards, the kind of songs that Freelon sings, embody principles.  Freelon takes on Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” a composition that could provide spiritual support or an entertainer’s advice—or both; and, which it is depends on interpretation, and for me Freelon does not go deeply enough into it to make it genuinely spiritual.

“With each performance I’ve learned a little bit more about what it means to be truly at home with the music and with myself,” claims singer Nnenna Freelon, who has performed in Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, the White House and many other venues, in the notes for the album Homefree.  Her albums include Nnenna Freelon, Heritage, Shaking Free, Listen, Maiden Voyage, Soulcall, Tales of Wonder, Live, Blueprint of a Lady, and Better Than Anything.  The Homefree collection was recorded in North Carolina, Nnenna Freelon’s home for almost thirty years, and it has the participation of musicians Nnenna Freelon respects and trusts, musicians she has collaborated with for years: her band, pianist Brandon McCune, drummer Kinah Ayah, percussionist Beverly Botsford, and bassist Wayne Batchelor, are helped by the flugelhorn of Ray Codrington, and Scott Sawyer’s guitar, Ira Wiggins’s saxophone, and John Brown’s bass.  (Wiggins and Brown are not only musicians, they are the directors of college jazz studies; and Freelon has referred to her guest artists as heroes.)  Around the time the Homefree recording was presented to the public, Freelon performed a concert in Rose Hall at Lincoln Center in New York, a concert attended by critic Nate Chinen of The New York Times, and Chinen called Freelon “a jazz singer of unstinting vivacity,” one who drew on the lessons of Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, Lena Horne, and Billie Holiday, “without resorting to outright emulation” (Times, May 12, 2010).  Yet, Nate Chinen, sounding a little peevish, faulted Freelon for not exploring emotion enough, and for the piety of certain patriotic song selections.  Sometimes performers are criticized for paying too much attention to their effect on the audience, on entertainment; and sometimes for paying too much attention to technique, to artistry: what is fault may be a matter of taste.  A few days after Chinen’s report, the Berklee College of Music professor Fred Bouchard delivered a considered but excited and somewhat slang-dripping review of Homefree on the dedicated jazz website All About Jazz, which has been acknowledging and evaluating the many productions in the jazz field for years.  Bouchard concluded that “Freelon’s compelling, searching artistry never lets up, yet leaves you with more grins than furrowed brows, with more questions than answers” (All About Jazz, May 14, 2010).

I am not sure that the introduction of Homefree’s “You and the Night and the Music,” composed by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, is as dramatic as may be intended, but the remainder of the song has a reckless sultriness that creates a pillow for the lyrics’ questioning of fidelity.  In Nnenna Freelon’s own “Cell Phone Blues,” direct communication, face to face, is desired, and it is clever, suggestive, with a firm groove, especially that of a blues guitar and percussion; and Freelon sings, “I’m looking for a lover on the friends and family plan.”  I thought Freelon had written “Get Out of Town” when I heard it initially—her line readings of the Cole Porter tune are entrancing, and extraordinarily varied; in it, she is trying to end an intense relationship, one of attraction and excitement rather than compatibility.  Her voice is beautiful, big, and bold in Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer’s “Skylark,” supported by the pathos and plucking and puttering of two bass players, John Brown and Wayne Batchelor.  “The bass is the earth and I’m the wind that needs that earth beneath me,” Freelon has said.

Nnenna Freelon’s Homefree closes with two significant songs, the kind of ambitious and unifying gestures more singers might try: “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” written by John Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson, and “America the Beautiful,” written by Katherine Bates and Samuel Ward.  Freelon’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is celebratory, though I have heard it sung mournfully; here, there is joy and pride in it, as it has been transformed by jazz, and her son Pierre’s rap—affirming ancestors and music as a connector—completes the piece, which brings together jazz and rap with the spiritual tradition.  One can hear the poetry of the lyrics in Freelon’s interpretation of “America the Beautiful,” which bridges classical music and jazz (Tim Holley’s cello, especially, does that).

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett, who likes jazz, independent rock, and world music, originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.”  He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.  Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail or