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Long Tours Give Jazz Vocalist a Chance to Find Her Road Voice

Five years ago, singer Nnenna Freelon started her career with a bang, on Columbia Records, and is continuing her mission.


Nnenna Freelon is enjoying a bass-ackward life in jazz.

In 1992, Nnenna (pronounced NEE-na) Freelon burst on the music scene. She sang in the biggest halls, recorded with a big label, snared a Grammy nomination for her debut album.

Now, she has scaled back.

Released from her contract with Columbia for unknown reasons, Freelon is now with the small, but highly respected, Concord label. Concord recently released her fourth album, "Shaking Free."

"I cut my teeth on the biggest record company in the world. I think that's very cool," she said with a laugh during a phone interview from her home in Durham, N.C.

"With any large corporation, when you have many people riding on your success, there's a certain degree of compromise that takes place. I'm just happy that, at this point in my career, I'm with a company where there's a real respect for what I've already built and a confidence that I will continue to grow."

She has already grown tremendously since the 1980s--when she wasn't a singer. She worked for a year in hospital administration before quitting to raise her three children. Freelon decided one day in 1983 that she needed something new. She needed to sing again, like she had when she was growing up in Massachusetts.

Then in her mid-20s, she signed up for a jazz workshop in her hometown of Durham, N.C. She worked weddings, funerals, political rallies, private parties, whatever. Her break came in 1990, when she caught the ear of pianist Ellis Marsalis at an Atlanta jazz conference. He introduced her to people at Columbia and, suddenly, Freelon was inviting comparisons to Sarah Vaughan.


On her current West Coast tour, Freelon is returning to the Jazz Hall in Santa Barbara for two shows Sunday. Her trio also will put in a week at Catalina's in Hollywood, but Jazz Hall's intimate space may be the ideal spot to hear what Freelon and her trio--pianist Bill Anschell, drummer Woody Williams, and bassist John Brown--are about.

In many ways "Shaking Free" is Freelon's most personal recording project to date, in part because she had the freedom to design the album musically without the intervention typical of major-label producers. She made an unusual choice: to record with her touring band, musicians also from the Southeast, whom she described as friends.

"You wouldn't think it was such a brilliant idea to just do a record with your touring unit," she said. "But in light of some of the gimmicky conceptual projects that are out there, I think its simplicity and comfort level--from the time put in with the players--is what shines through."

Despite the move to a smaller label, Freelon says she's a stronger singer than she ever has been. Five years of experience have not only affected her performance skills and songwriting--but also her voice.

"There's something interesting that happens with singers. When you're on the road for awhile, you develop a different timbre, and a different quality in your voice," Freelon said. "I remember the first time I was on the road for more than three weeks, my voice took on a burnished, different quality altogether, and I really liked it.

"I spoke to a friend of mine who is a classical vocalist, and she said, 'Oh, that's your road voice.' It was a real surprise to me, because prior to that, I'd been out for a few days or a week, or an isolated date here or there, and hadn't had the benefit of really working consistently enough to get to another level."

"Shaking Free" ranges from new arrangements of standards (such as "I Thought About You") to Freelon's original tunes. There's a new reading of the folk song "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair" and a spunky turn on Stevie Wonder's "Visions."


One striking example of Freelon's tendency to reinvent standards is a slow version of "My Shining Hour," re-harmonized by pianist Anschell and treated as elegant and brooding rather than an energetic crowd-warmer.

"It's usually done as a bright, celebratory type of thing. The image is of you being backstage and pumping yourself up, as all musicians have to do when you're peeking through the curtain at a 1,000-seat house and there are 14 people out there.

"Or," she continued, "there's the other situation. We were in Vienne, France, in an amphitheater, opening for Ray Charles. He is a magnificent artist, an icon, and we're scared to death to be in the same country as this guy. We look out and there are 9,000 people out there. That's another kind of fear in the belly. So 'My Shining Hour' is a mantra, if you will, that you sing not to an audience so much as to yourself."

Certainly, Freelon already has seen more shining hours than most singers do in a lifetime. But she's still circumspect about her condensed career.

"It probably takes five to seven years for you to really establish yourself in any business. I'm not quite there yet in my own mind's eye. I'm still reaching for the point where I can feel like I'm established."


At 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Sunday at the Jazz Hall, 29 E. Victoria St. in Santa Barbara. Call 963-0404.

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