Nnenna Freelon’s high profile self-titled recording debut on Columbia Records in 1992 prematurely vaulted the young singer onto the national jazz stage. Unfortunately, Ms. Freelon was still in the process of developing her style and a major record label like Columbia proved to be a less than ideal environment for a singer with growing pains. It wasn’t until signing with Concord Jazz in 1996 that Ms. Freelon truly began to find her own voice. Her two previous Grammy-nominated CDs for the label, Shaking Free (1996) and Maiden Voyage 1998), represented significant artistic leaps forward. Ms. Freelon’s latest recording, Soulcall, finds this talented and engaging singer continuing to stretch herself in new and interesting directions.
Ms. Freelon has shed her early Sarah Vaughan mannerisms to create her own approach to the art of jazz singing. She combines a smooth alto voice with a brash, almost aggressive, style of phrasing. Favoring intensity of feeling over subtlety of expression, Ms. Freelon generates some of the visceral excitement of a soul singer but without any of the associated vocal quirks. Although very good, her wordless improvising, which strongly reflects the influence of Ella Fitzgerald, does not quite have the depth or imagination of Dee Dee Bridgewater’s or Dominique Eade’s. However, Ms. Freelon judiciously limits her use of scat singing to an occasional chorus, deploying it as an appealing ornamental device rather than as the centerpiece of a performance.
On Soulcall, Ms. Freelon has assembled a diverse collection of songs and an impressive array of musicians to explore the theme of positive spirituality. What makes the recording ultimately so successful is the formidable level of concentration Ms. Freelon brings to every performance. Using 10 different combinations of musicians, she has thoughtfully and carefully reconceived each tune. “Straighten Up and Fly Right” becomes an infectious, finger snapping, acapella showcase for Ms. Freelon and the vocal group Take 6 while the 1928 song “Button Up Your Overcoat” receives a funky, thoroughly modern transformation. Ms. Freelon takes the first chorus of “Just in Time” with only James Williams on piano and redefines the song as a gospel piece before being joined by the rest of the trio for an exuberant, swinging finish. Ms. Freelon sings two versions of “Amazing Grace” – one, accompanied only by Takana Miyamoto on piano, treats the song with a child’s sense of wonderment while the second, more fully realized version becomes an adult’s celebration of redemption. However, not every performance achieves the same level of synergy. A couple of tracks are given bland, smooth jazz arrangements and some of the material is not as strong as it should be. Overall, however, this is an enjoyable recording from an artist who has not only found her own voice, but who, it turns out, also has something very interesting to say.
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