If there are no second acts in American lives, don‘t tell Nnenna Freelon. One of the brightest stars to emerge on the jazz vocal scene in the 1990s, the Massachusetts native chose a vocation in health services and motherhood in North Carolina before finally pursuing a music career. A chance meeting with pianist Ellis Marsalis at an Atlanta arts conference brought Freelon to the attention of Sony-Columbia, but after cutting three well-received discs for the label between 1992 and 1996, she found herself without a contract. Undaunted, Freelon continued to tour, and in 1996 released Shaking Free, the first in a series of acclaimed albums for Concord Jazz. A risk taker, Freelon draws inspiration from many sources; funk, gospel and R&B routinely flow through her mix, and she’s as likely to cover a folk or pop tune as she is Ellington or Monk. Soulcall (2000), her third Concord album and a meditation on music sacred and profane, earned Freelon her fourth and fifth Grammy nominations; its highly anticipated follow-up, the Stevie Wonder tribute Tales of Wonder, arrived in stores this month. We spoke to Freelon by telephone at her home in Durham, North Carolina.
L.A. WEEKLY: You‘re labeled a jazz singer, yet your repertoire reaches outside the traditional jazz canon. How would you describe yourself?
FREELON: I am a jazz singer. But that’s an artistic value to me. If you put me in a situation where I‘m working with musicians I never met before, doing music that I haven’t had a chance to rehearse, and you say, ”We‘ve got a show to do,“ I can do a show. Because I’m a jazz musician — I can call tunes in keys, I can improvise. Whether I‘m singing an 18th-century folk song like ”Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,“ or if I‘m singing ”Think of One“ by Monk, my mentality and my heart and my spirit are in the same place.
Incorporating new standards into the literature is an important part of keeping the tradition alive and vital. When we look at the tunes Ella and Sarah were covering in their heyday, they were covering pop tunes of their own era. Now it seems we’ve slammed the door on new material being incorporated in the tradition, and I think it‘s a mistake.
What drew you to jazz?
When I was little, that’s what was in the home. As I grew older, I made different choices, but the imprint had already been made. When I finally gave myself permission to work on my music, I found it was jazz that was screaming the loudest to be heard.
Why the late start?
I didn‘t think I could do it, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. And it wasn‘t until I got married, with my husband’s support, and his sort of reading me the riot act, saying, ”Look, you‘re not going to blame me and our family for you not achieving your dreams. You better get to steppin’.“
At the time, it didn‘t seem like such a friendly thing to say to your wife. Here we are in Durham, North Carolina, three little kids, very few skills — there was a lot I needed to learn. But bit by bit, I began to work on the things that I could control. I couldn’t control whether somebody was going to give me a record contract, but I could control how many songs I knew. And I could control what I knew about putting together a repertoire. Because I wanted this thing so badly, I had to figure out a way to make it happen.
I‘m told you got your first record contract by singing ”Skylark“ in [Sony-Columbia exec] George Butler’s hotel lobby after he canceled a meeting with you.
Yes, it really happened. But the truth of it is, I still couldn‘t get him on the phone for another eight months. I had to hound him.
Although the Sony contract may seem like an overnight thing, this was a singer who had been working on her craft for the previous 10 years. I had already become sort of the queen of the local scene down here, and had done some of the homework — learning how to deal with an audience, how to deal with a drunk audience, all the things that you learn as you come up through the ranks. Everything I’m doing now is building on that foundation.
Your growth as an artist has seemed particularly rapid since your switch to Concord.
When Columbia decided not to renew and I went for a couple of years without a contract, those were very important years, because I worked. I honed my craft. I was learning things about singing at a club for a week, two sets a night. Traveling in Europe, singing for audiences who don‘t share your language. These are things you can’t know until you‘ve done them.
Being dropped was painful emotionally, but I emerged on the other side stronger than I was before. And then signing with Concord, and finding people who were interested in my ideas, and in doing things outside the box, was such a wonderful change. I said I wanted to do a record that celebrates women [1998’s Maiden Voyage], and nobody said, ”How are we going to market it?“ When I wanted to do Soulcall and I was talking about blending the secular and sacred, they were like, ”Cool. We don‘t know what you mean, but go ahead.“
What drew you to Stevie Wonder for the new disc?
I’m a person who loves a good story, and Stevie Wonder is one of those unique artists who have great facility with the word and the melody. And he‘s got a huge songbook, so making choices was hard. At one point a suggestion came across my desk: ”Look, it’s too broad. Why don‘t we narrow it to ’Nnenna Sings Songs in the Key of Life‘ or ’Nnenna Sings ‘70s Stevie’?“ But I rejected that, because one of the things that I love about this man is that he continues to evolve in his artistic life, and I wanted to celebrate that.
Is yours the first vocal tribute to him?
I searched and found all kinds of things, but not a single artist just taking his tunes and running with it. And I kind of understand: His music is hard. There were many of his tunes I could not sing — it‘s like he built a safe and kept the keys for himself. There were songs I thought I wanted to do, and I started messing around with the chords, and it just fell apart in my hands. It was like, ”Oh, you didn’t want to be something else. Okay, fine, you go back on the shelf.“ I don‘t want to disrespect the song by taking it somewhere it doesn’t want to go.
You‘ve often been compared to Sarah Vaughan. Have you patterned yourself after anyone in particular?
From Carmen McCrae, I’ve learned the power of the word, of phrasing. From Ella Fitzgerald, a sense of swing, and a joyousness. Sarah with her sensuousness, her adventurousness, how she would take a melody and just have her way with it, would make you believe that‘s the way the man wrote it in the first place. From Etta Jones, that salt and vinegar. All these women, and men too — Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks — have something to teach us about the way of the voice.
Younger singers, we have a heavy weight on us. Here we are just being out here 10 years or 20 years, and that’s nothing in comparison to the body of work that‘s gone before us. And there are a finite number of ways, I guess, of doing a thing; you’re inevitably going to be compared to somebody. But there are no two anythings that are exactly alike.
I am more and more reaching for singing who I am, as opposed to singing who the world may want me to be or think that I am. It takes a degree of not only honesty but lack of fear, and there are days that I feel less afraid than others. It‘s a journey. If you just stay on the path, that’s the point, maybe. To just stay on the path, and not be knocked off.
Nnenna Freelon appears at the Playboy Jazz Festival on Saturday, June 15.