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Strong Lineup on Tap for Annual Pasadena Festival


For Nnenna Freelon, thinking creatively seems to come as naturally as breathing. The36-year-old singer is an insightful artist whose renditions of both classic standards and recent originals sound personal and fresh.

To sing a tune freely and with spontaneity, Freelon says, she visualizes songs as houses. "I'm always searching for the door, so I don't have to stand outside, little me, and sing up at it," says Freelon, speaking from her home in Durham, N.C.

"When I find the door, then I can stand in the center and sing from the inside out," says Freelon, who performs this weekend at the Pasadena Jazz Festival/94 at Ambassador Auditorium.

The festival, which is in its fourth season, is offering one of the strongest mainstream jazz lineups of any major Southern California event in years. Saturday night's concert bill, which begins about 8:45, is headlined by organist Jimmy Smith. Freelon shows up Sunday afternoon at 1:30 along with Earl Klugh. Piano ace Benny Green arrives at 6 that evening and the festival concludes with saxophonist Joe Henderson's trio at 8:15 p.m.

Smith, easily the most well-known performer on the Hammond B-3 organ, is renowned for his gritty blues inflections, and his quartet will include two of his longtime associates: saxophonist Herman Riley, who possesses a breathy, pliant tone, and deft guitarist Terry Evans. The Saturday concert will be opened by another Southern California favorite adept at the exclamations and joys found in the blues: Jimmy and Jeannie Cheatham's Sweet Baby Blues Band from San Diego (though several of the key players are from Los Angeles). Hank Crawford, the redoubtable blues altoist, will guest with the Cheathams.

Freelon, who has only been on the international jazz scene for two years, has just released her third Columbia Records album, "Listen." She is a gifted singer with a lush, rich voice and is equally at home with standards, jazz classics--she penned the lyrics to Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" and McCoy Tyner's "Ballad for Aisha"--and originals: "Listen" contains six tunes written or co-written by Freelon. She opens for Klugh, who for almost 20 years has been a contemporary jazz star, offering melodic and highly rhythmic, if somewhat nondescript, numbers that have long pleased audiences.

Pianist Green, already a master at mixing technical bravado with heartfelt essence, continues to be one of the most celebrated young players in jazz, and he brings along his nonpareil bassist, Christian McBride. Green and McBride will be joined by George Fludas, the pianist's latest find on the drums.

While festival closer Henderson has always sounded marvelous, he's certainly at the peak of his career in terms of visibility, winning polls in a variety of jazz magazines and seeing his Verve-label albums selling more than 100,000 copies worldwide. He fronts a piano-less trio with bass giant George Mraz, who rarely travels to our area, and drummer Al Foster.

In addition to the Ambassador Auditorium shows, the festival also offers free concerts offered on Ambassador's Mall on Sunday with solid saxophonist Rickey Woodard at 4:30 p.m. and guitarist Frank Vignola at 7 p.m.

Tickets are priced from $26.50 to $29.50 for individual concerts and $62 to $69 for a three-concert series.

Ambassador Auditorium is located at 300 W. Green St. in Pasadena.

Information: (818) 304-6161.

Jazz Goes to College: Common Grounds, the small coffeehouse located near Cal State Northridge, is expanding its jazz policy, and is hosting six jazz acts this week. Tonight it's saxman Rob Kyle, Saturday bassist Hersh Hamel offers a tribute to Chet Baker. On Sunday, Chuck Johnson's Jazztet goes with mainstream sounds, while on Monday, expect sax whiz Doug Webb to blow out the walls with energized post-be-bop fomentations. On Tuesday, invigorating guitarist Jim Hershman holds forth, then on Thursday, refreshing vocalist Cathy Segal-Garcia is on tap.

Shows are at 8 p.m. No cover, $2.50 minimum.

Information: (818) 882-3666.

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