An interesting thing happened to vocalist Nnenna Freelon on her way to becoming a big deal: in 1994, after three albums, Columbia dropped her like a bad habit. Two years later she hooked up with a much smaller label, Concord Records; freed of overweening producers intent on "packaging" her natural gifts, she's bounced back with three solid outings and a shot singing on-screen in the film What Women Want. Her most recent album, last year's Soulcall, garnered her Grammy nominations number four and five, but despite that recognition it's not the most successful of her discs--perhaps because it has the most ambitious agenda. In interviews and in the album notes, Freelon has said she wanted to bring together secular music and music from the gospel tradition in which she learned to sing; many tracks work on their own merits, but the album as a whole has a herky-jerky, neither-here-nor-there quality. Of course, this takes nothing away from Freelon's considerable gifts as an improviser: steeped in the masters' voices, she references Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams, Mel Torme, and most of all the indomitable Sarah Vaughan (she even has some of the same playful authority and freewheeling stage-and-studio presence). For all her sense of tradition, though, she's not bound by it: like her contemporary Kurt Elling, she effortlessly incorporates modern rhythms, from smooth dance beats to hip-hop. She has a big voice, equal parts honey and vinegar, and she's not afraid of soaring glissandos. But she keeps her gigantic vibrato pent up until she needs it--and when it breaks free, it hits like a tsunami. The new decade doesn't want for terrific jazz vocalists, but even so, Freelon is near the top of the heap. She's touring with her regular quintet, and arrives in Chicago fresh from her appearance on Wednesday night's Grammy telecast, where she and Take 6 were scheduled to perform the Nat "King" Cole standard "Straighten Up and Fly Right." Friday, February 23, 9 PM, and Saturday, February 24, 8 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway; 773-878-5552.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Niero.