Nnenna Freelon – as jazzy as ever

Angella d'Avignon

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American jazz singer and six-time Grammy nominee Nnenna Freelon and her group performed at Jazz Live, an event hosted by KSDS Jazz 88.3 FM on Nov. 9 at the Saville Theatre.

The event, which is produced monthly by KSDS’s David Drexler, turned Saville Theatre into an old-fashioned radio studio. Freelon, backed by a three-piece band and playing for a capacity crowd, crooned her way through original and classic jazz songs.

A world-renowned jazz singer, Freelon is no stranger to the stage. She has performed for more than 30 years in such venues as Carnegie Hall and the White House.

Tuesday night, her presence was magnetic as she wooed the crowd with charming, engaging banter and her sultry voice.

“How many of you out there are in love?” she asked, and the audience whistled and whooped in response.

As a front woman, Freelon is as gracious as she is talented, which is undoubtedly the reason for her success. Theatrical without being overbearing, Freelon enjoyed herself as she waved her hands through the air, visibly narrating the sound and rhythm of her music. She seemed almost possessed by the songs, which ranged from exuberant to melancholy, as she carved the air with her voice.

Freelon was joined on stage by drummer Duncan Moore, bassist Bob Magnussen, and avant-garde pianist Mark Garson, who is famous for his work with pop artist David Bowie.

Garson skillfully infused riffs from Miles Davis’ “So What” while playing “I Feel Pretty,” creating a completely modern take on the classic song from the musical “West Side Story.”

Garson did not merely accompany Freelon but served as an extension of her voice and was paramount to the performance’s magnitude and excellence.

“There is a song for every human condition,” Freelon said. She introduced songs about sadness and joy.

Part of the spirit of jazz music is about modernizing and reconstructing old standards, and plenty of contemporary jazz tends to be overwrought and even cheesy. As master musicians, the Nnenna Freelon Quartet breathed new life into time-tested pieces such as “Smile,” made famous by Charlie Chaplin in his film “Modern Times,” and “If I Only Had a Brain” from the musical “The Wizard of Oz.”

Noteworthy renditions including a moody version of “Skylark,” a song Freelon described as “a trusted friend” and performed alone with Magnussen were slipped between Freelon originals such as the spunky “Cellphone Blues,” which the singer wrote about her husband, and “Lullaby For All Daughters” originally an instrumental song that Freelon paired with her own lyrics.

Perhaps what is most impressive about Freelon is her dedication to arts education. Freelon works as a spokesperson for the National Association of Partners in Education, an organization dedicated to improving the quality of American education by supporting arts education programs.

“I am actually invigorated by the presence of young people, so I honor them,” Freelon said. “There’s a humanizing aspect to the arts working in collaboration and cooperation with other human beings who might not be very much like you, where there is something larger that you’re working toward.”

Speaking or singing to her passion, Freelon closed the night out with an encore performance of Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing)” with waltz, bop and ragtime stylings. Each instrumentalist took a sonic version of a bow in the extended performance, highlighting both their talent and their role in an especially celebrated Jazz Live event.

“The arts are built on a cooperation model with an equality where everybody is important, and we need that,” Freelon said.

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