Nnenna Freelon shows strong suit – everything
Singer Nnenna Freelon presents a distinct problem in her performances.
She does so many things so well, it’s hard to see her strong suit. Would that we all had that trouble.
Thursday night, at the North Side’s Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, she offered old songs and new songs. Jazz classics and pop tunes. She had a charming stage presence and showed a good deal of humor.
And that doesn’t even mention she has a dynamite voice.
She opened the Guild’s 16th season of jazz concerts and easily showed why her fans can be vocal about her talents. The concert was sold out, but there were a few empty seats scattered through the 350-seat hall.
She created a strong show out of one that began well, but didn’t have nearly the excitement and zest she created. Vibes player Bobby Hutcherson and Hammond B-3 organist Joey DeFrancesco made sense out of what sounds like an odd combination.
The lightness and mellowness of the vibes doesn’t seem a good partner with an organ that seldom creates anything subtle. Besides the jazz of people such as Jimmy Smith, this also is the instrument that gives soul to gospel services and melody to skating rinks.
But the two were able to create a workable team. DeFrancesco proved to be a tasteful accompanist on bebop-flavored tunes such as “Take the Coltrane” and “Bemsha Swing.”
Naturally, he got to offer his more forceful solos on those pieces, but when he was supporting Hutcherson, he backed off nicely.
The vibes player was the real star of the first half, however. On his own “Little B’s Poem,” for instance, he gave swing to a long, classically structured run of eighth notes. On “We’ll Be Together Again,” he smoothly put together a solo in one section that explored a theme through a steady half-step decline.
They got the concert off to a good start, but Freelon made it an evening worth remembering.
Her ability to take older songs and give them life is remarkable. She sang “Button Up Your Overcoat,” a tune written in 1925, and made it new by adding a humorous approach to the lyrics and a bit of funk to the song’s style.
She also made Cole Porter’s “I Love You” sound newer than it is simply by stepping up the swing.
Her versions of Stevie Wonder songs, taken from her new “Tales of Wonder” album, were perhaps the highlight of her show. Her work on “Tears of a Clown” and “Creepin'” were fueled by the rhythms the composer created, but her voice gave substance to “My Cherie Amour.”
After all, her voice is better than Wonder’s, and she elevated to a new level that famous “la-la-laaa-la-la-la” line.
Her quintet centered on the work of guitarist Scott Sawyer, but her show naturally was built around her strong but always-in-control voice.
Freelon is a singer more people need to know.
The concerts will be repeated 7 and 9:30 tonight and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $30. Information: (412) 322-0800.