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.