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Nnenna Freelan With The Charleston Jazz Orchestra at Charleston Music Hall

Rob Rosenblum By

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Nnenna Freelon with the Charleston Jazz Orchestra
Charleston Music Hall
Charleston, SC
January 18, 2018

If you were expecting fireworks and bombastic performances of favorite pop tunes, jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon might have disappointed you in her Charleston debut last Friday night at the Charleston Music Hall. But if your ears were open to a seasoned professional who had honed her craft to near perfection, while leaving herself open to subtle changes in inflection and gentle massaging of under appreciated melodic treasures, then you were in for a treat.

Most audiences have an expectation of female singers to be a cross between Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin. Freelon's strategy is much different. That is not to say that the performance lacked power, But it drew its strength from her subtlety, variety and gentle charm.

She kicked off the evening with a medium up tempo version of Johnny Mercer's "Out of This World" followed by the swing era standard, "You Can't Take That Away From Me," which included a brief solo intro before being joined by some roaring passages by the orchestra and a shouting ending, and a brief scatting nod to Ella as a final punctuation.

Her performance of "I Like the Sunrise"—a rarely heard jewel from Duke Ellington's Liberian Suite, was respectful of the master.

"Lately," a Motown tune penned by Stevie Wonder was given a slow bossa nova treatment, with a brief solo by tenor saxophonist Mark Sterbank.

Freelan gave an impressive A Capella treatment to "Little Girl Blue," which has been recorded by such diverse performers as Janis Joplin and Chet Baker.

"Wouldn't It Be Loverly" had a definite Basie feel, with the orchestra filling the bill. "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," was sung at a tantalizingly slow tempo with a touching interlude by Sterbank. That was followed up by a finger snapping "Baby It's Cold Outside," with the assistance of a pungent alto solo by Robert Lewis and guest bassist John Brown providing a vocal counter melody.

Brown's walking bass introduced "Skylark," underneath an extended spoken intro by Freelan before she launches into the melody, holding each phrase until it seemed almost ready to shatter, sprinkling in a subtle blues feel for a tiny bit of spice. Holding the audience spellbound with just voice and bass is like walking on a high wire without a net. She pulled it off spectacularly, knowing exactly which phrases to emphasize and when to throw in a tiny bit of scat here and there, occasionally adding in her own version of the lyrics to the stew.

"Come Rain or Come Shine" began with an extended Debussey like intro from pianist Gerald Gregory. Freelan edged her way in to this heart wrenching ballad, building to a quiet fire, twisting and bending the melody to her needs and finishing the first chorus with a shout, before stepping aside for a brief tenor solo. She returns to finish it up with a shouting out chorus.

The encore "Feelin' Good," was a bit anti climatic on the heels of such a great performance, but Freelan turned it into a summary of her considerable skills, alternately moving from a heart wrenching blues to quiet introspection to a foot stomping ending.

Freelan is a consummate artist who invites the audience to the party, but never panders to them. She is not a virtuoso in the style of Ella Fitzgerald. She relies on subtlety and the deft use of dynamics to get her point across and her performance that night was a complete success.

It would be negligent to omit the mention of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, which has become a finely tuned body shaped by trumpeter and leader, Charlton Singleton, who has become somewhat of a jazz Godfather in the area. Considering that the city is home to less than 150 thousand people, he has managed to find enough talent and enough exposure to keep this challenging enterprise running. Bassist Frank Duvall, pianist Gerald Gregory, drummer Ron Wiltrout and above mentioned Robert Lewis and Mark Sterbank testify to the depth of talent in the Holy City, whose mayor, John Techlenberg has been a working jazz pianist before taking office, and the tourist hub is beginning to make its mark in America's southeast as a welcome home for jazz. This concert, as part of the Fourth Annual Charleston Jazz Festival, is one more big stepping stone.
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