Slowly but surely, Nnenna Freelon is forging her own distinctive identity in the minds of listeners through her singular voice and through the uplifting messages inherent in her CD's.
Now that Concord is giving her free reign to produce her own CD's, Freelon has chosen to sing about the ultimate uplift: the basis and the optimism of her faith. While her last CD, "Maiden Voyage," concerned itself with the stages of a woman's life with unflinching honesty, "Soulcall" elaborates on the meaning of the album's titlethat is, a call upon the unlimited resources of the human soul.
Freelon does this by recruiting guests artists who share her attitude and spirit: Take 6, Kirk Whalum, and the Sounds Of Blackness. Through the strengths of those guests' individual styles, they illuminate Freelon's interests in their specialized genres, such as gospel or R&B. Less interested in categories than in content, Freelon varies her repertoire to approach the subject from various perspectives, converging as always at the same conclusion. That conclusion is epitomized in Freelon's original compositions, "One Child At A Time" and "Soulcall," revealing, as one may suspect, that she is a talented songwriter, in addition to being a talented singer and arranger. The positive message of "One story read, one promise kept. This is all it takes to nurture change tomorrow. Touch the future. We can turn the world around, one child at a time," reinforcing her apparent belief in the importance of childhood in creating a brighter future.
Even though Freelon's back-up group has changed from "Maiden Voyage" to "Soulcall," the difference is hardly noticeable because of Freelon's command of every song with ease and feeling. "Better Than Anything" glides from a rhumba-ish 3/4 into a 4/4 swing without perceptible pause or thought, as if it were natural. Freelon's original approach to "Button Up Your Overcoat" reveals once again that she considers standards as material for the blending of contemporary beats with traditional lyrics.
In the gospel department, though, her two tracks of "Amazing Grace" offer two approaches to one of the more important songs in Freelon's life. The first duo version with pianist Miyamoto goes ruminative and rhythmless, as Freelon considers the words' essential meanings as they are delivered. The surprising fact of the trio version is that somehow Freelon was able to recruit legendary drummer Ed Thigpen to perform with her and Ray Drummond, even though Thigpen lives in Denmark and comes to the U.S. just once or twice a year.
For absolute gorgeousness, Mark Kibble's and Cedric Dent's arrangement of "Straighten Up And Fly Right" stands in a class of its own, as Take 6 merges its unparalleled vocal style with Freelon's voice for swing and harmonic richness.
"Maiden Voyage" was a noteworthy accomplishment, to say the least, as artists like Marian McPartland mentioned. If Freelon's growing audience was worried about how she would top that truly exceptional album, their worries may be put to rest. "Soulcall," similar in instrumentation and arrangements, differentiates itself from "Maiden Voyage" with a stand-alone message that distinguishes Freelon yet again.
Track Listing: Better Than Anything; Let It Be Me; Straighten Up And Fly Right; Amazing Grace; Button Up Your Overcoat; One Child At A Time; I Say A Little Prayer; If It's Magic; Soulcall; Just In Time; Paper Moon; You're Nearer/Nearer My God To Three; Amazing Grace
Personnel: Nnenna Freelon, vocals; Takana Miyamoto, piano, Fender Rhodes; James Williams, piano; Joe Beck, guitar; Wayne Batchelor, Ray Drummond, Matt Penman, bass; Woody Williams, Ed Thigpen, drums; Matt Shulman, trumpet; Chris Potter, tenor sax, alto flute; James Sandon, tenor sax; Beverly Botsford, percussion
I was first exposed to jazz circa 1973, when I met a fellow who ran Kappy's Record Store over near 10th Ave., on 42nd St. in NYC. We really clicked and when I told him I played piano and went to Music & Art HS, and had just started at City College of NY as a music major, he asked if I liked jazz...I said yes but I didn't know much about it, but that I did have sheet music for many popular 1920's through 1940's tunes by noted composers (Porter; Gershwins; Irving Berlin; Rodgers & Hammerstein/Hart; Jerome Kern; Lerner & Loewe; etc.) that my mother had sung beautifully starting in the 1940's including tons of famous show tunes, and I played many of those songs already
I was first exposed to jazz circa 1973, when I met a fellow who ran Kappy's Record Store over near 10th Ave., on 42nd St. in NYC. We really clicked and when I told him I played piano and went to Music & Art HS, and had just started at City College of NY as a music major, he asked if I liked jazz...I said yes but I didn't know much about it, but that I did have sheet music for many popular 1920's through 1940's tunes by noted composers (Porter; Gershwins; Irving Berlin; Rodgers & Hammerstein/Hart; Jerome Kern; Lerner & Loewe; etc.) that my mother had sung beautifully starting in the 1940's including tons of famous show tunes, and I played many of those songs already. SOOOO... he started me off LP's by Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Errol Garner, Bill Evans, Monty Alexander, Charlie Byrd, and Dave Brubeck... does it get any better than that? ...No, it doesn't. I was hooked!!
I met and had a master class with the late music giant John Lewis, leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet! This was at CCNY in 1977. I was blessed! It was an incredible class... how could it have been anything else?!?!
The first jazz record I bought was...I bought numerous records from my friend at the record store, as mentioned above. He introduced me to nothing but music giants/legends! I think The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Greatest Hits, was actually the first one.
My advice to new listeners... study first--understand the rudiments--solfeggio, keys, scales, and basic chords. Read a book or take a class that includes the study of chord progressions, especially in jazz. It should ideally be a piano class so you can play multiple notes together. Have a good EAR or else it's not really worth it in my view...to become a musician, a good EAR for music is about as fundamental as breathing! Learn to read chord charts--i.e., lead sheets - wherein you play various voicings of the chords--major, minor, dominant 7th (alterations of these, you can learn over time - the basic chords are most important for starters), plus the melody, on the piano or keyboard. If you have to read the exact notes, then it's not the same as actually internalizing it & getting it all into your head. If you can do this, I think you're ready not only for listening to jazz, but understanding many concepts of it! Of course...anyone can listen to jazz... but I think it's so good to also have a grasp of it.