No matter how impressive the voice, no matter how well–oiled the pipes — and Lord knows Nnenna Freelon is abundantly blessed in both respects — he or she simply cannot rise far above the material. Although Freelon makes a gallant effort on Maiden Voyage, the ship barely gets out of drydock, overladen with forgettable lyrics and lashed to its moorings by mundane melodies. Too harsh? Perhaps. But if I were going to open a set with eight sleep–inducing originals, as Freelon has done, I wouldn’t remind the listener of their relative lack of substance by following them with “Pick Yourself Up” and “I Won’t Dance,” enduring classics from the golden age of Tin Pan Alley (with memorable words by the clever tunesmith Dorothy Field). In fact, the session doesn’t take wing until Freelon introduces those treasures and closes with Blossom Dearie’s pensive ballad, “Inside a Silent Tear” (lyrics by Linda Albert), and her own “Sing Me Down“ (actually her lyrics set to a folk song whose name, I believe, is “Turn Around”). The melodies and lyrics that precede them really are lightweight; while Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” and Marian McPartland’s “Threnody” (here renamed “Sepia Wing” to mirror Freelon’s lyrics) are splendid as instrumentals, appending lyrics does nothing to enhance their appeal. Among the others, only Freelon’s “Future News Blues” held this listener’s ear for more than a moment. While I am hardly conversant with the works of Nina Simone, Laura Nyro and Buffy Sainte–Marie, surely their reputations weren’t built on the sort of uninspired material that is presented here. On a brighter note, if one would like to sing along, lyrics to each song (not always unerring) are provided in the accompanying booklet. As for Freelon, she sings beautifully — which, for the most part, is rather like adding a delectable frosting to cow chips.
Come Into My Life; Four Women; Maiden Voyage; Buy and Sell; Future News Blues; Until It
Nnenna Freelon, vocals; Michael Abene, piano, arranger; Joe Beck, guitar; Avishai Cohen, bass; Sammy Figueroa, percussion; Danny Gottlieb, drums; Herbie Hancock, piano (