Somewhere beneath the surface of the elusive art of jazz singing there is an element that is too often overlooked. That is the capacity of a vocalist to become a part of an ensemble, an integrated, blending, interactive component in the unfolding process of making music.
Nnenna Freelon accomplishes that task as well as--perhaps better than--anyone in the rapidly burgeoning field of jazz singing. On Tuesday night at Catalina Bar & Grill, in the opening set of a five-night run, she offered a virtual seminar in the art of working in a superbly empathetic fashion with supportive players. (Appropriately so, given the fact that the performance also was a benefit for National Partners in Education, an arts education support program for which Freelon serves as national spokeswoman.)
She devoted virtually her entire set to material from her new Concord album, "Soulcall," a collection of some of the finest music she has ever recorded. And, since her ensemble included the principal players from the CD--pianist Takana Miyamoto, bassist Wayne Batchelor, percussionist Beverly Botsford and drummer Woody Williams, the music flowed with easygoing assurance, creating the sort of confident setting that allows the free play of creativity.
Freelon had fun with her quirky settings of "Button Up Your Overcoat" and "Say a Little Prayer"; she was hip and swinging with "Better Than Anything"; and she encored with a rendering of her own touching appeal, "One Child at a Time."
But the most impressive reading--amid a program of splendid singing--was a sensitive interpretation of a number not included on the CD: the classic "Skylark." Accompanied only by Miyamoto's spare, but exquisite, piano playing, Freelon sang with a lush tonal coloration not always present in the album, moving sensitively through the song's rich harmonies and delivering the lyrics with the assurance of a born storyteller.
It was a set to remember, one that was clearly enjoyed as much by the musicians as it was by the capacity crowd. And by the time it was over, there was no doubt that Freelon has now positioned herself in the very top echelon of jazz vocalists.
* Nnenna Freelon at Catalina Bar & Grill, 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd. Hollywood. Tonight and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m., $17 cover. Tonight and Saturday at 10:30 p.m. and Sunday at 9 p.m., $15 cover. Two-drink minimum. (323) 466-2210.