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Music & Dance | JAZZ REVIEW

Freelon and Catalina looking ahead

The proven but still evolving singer expands her musical horizons in a longtime venue's final days before relocation.

October 31, 2003|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

There was a mixture of poignancy and anticipation in the air Tuesday at Catalina Bar & Grill as singer Nnenna Freelon headlined the jazz restaurant's last week at its Cahuenga Boulevard location. Seventeen years after its modest beginning, which quickly evolved into its establishment as one of the country's primary jazz venues, Catalina was on the verge of making a move to a shiny new location on Sunset Boulevard.

In a rare appearance on stage, owner Catalina Popescu spoke briefly about the years of jazz memories resonating through the old room, as well as her excitement about the new venue, which will open late next month.

Freelon was a good choice to encompass both those feelings. A well-established singer with a convincing track record, she is also still evolving, still expanding her musical and dramatic horizons.

One of Freelon's greatest strengths has always been her capacity to fit smoothly into a flow that is energized by her interaction with her accompanists. That quality was enhanced by the fact that her ensemble -- pianist Brandon McCune, bassist Wayne Batchelor, guitarist Scott Sawyer, drummer Kirah Boto and percussionist Beverly Botsford -- consists of longtime associates, intimately familiar with Freelon's every musical thrust, feint and parry.

Equally important, she insists on approaching her material from consistently new perspectives. "I Feel Pretty," for example, became a little rhythmic essay, complete with a spoken beginning and a payoff ending. "Nature Boy" took a sharp right turn from its classic Nat King Cole approach. "I Say a Little Prayer" emerged as a spiritual encounter between Freelon's voice and Botsford's stirring conga drums. And "My Cherie Amour" was transformed from a pop standard into a brisk jazz journey.

Freelon's warmly communicative performance recalled dozens of other extraordinary jazz experiences from the same Catalina stage. And, anticipating the start of a new chapter in Los Angeles jazz history, one couldn't help but recall the old Chinese adage: Every ending is a new beginning is the law of heaven.

*

Nnenna Freelon

Where: Catalina Bar & Grill, 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood

When: Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday, 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Closed Friday.

Price: $16-$25, with two-drink minimum

Info: (323) 466-2210

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