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This article was prepared for the March 2, 2005 issue of U.S. 1
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Tuning Into Count Basie’s Soul
by Richard J. Skelly
Nnenna Freelon has some big shoes to fill, touring as she does with
the Count Basie Band. But obviously, she’s up to the task, having
successfully made it through last summer’s tour marking the centennial
of the birth of William "Count" Basie. (Basie was born in August,
1904, in Red Bank.)
Freelon, whose first name is pronounced Nee-na, is one in a long line
of women vocalists to join the Basie Band, a jazz-superstar-studded
legacy that includes Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Ella Fitzgerald,
and Newark-born Sarah Vaughan.
These days there are no surviving members from Basie’s original 1932
band. The current band is under the direction of Bill Hughes, who
worked with Basie previously and has been working with the band in its
varying configurations for 50 years. The 17-piece Basie Orchestra will
accompany Freelon on Saturday, March 5, at McCarter Theater.
"The music is very physically demanding," Freelon says in a phone
interview from her home in Durham, North Carolina, where she has been
based since the early 1980s. "Bill Hughes and the band open the first
half of the show, and then I come out with Dennis Wilson conducting.
He wrote all the arrangements for my part of the show, and we’ll be
doing tunes closely associated with the great singers who have worked
with the Basie band." As a conductor, Freelon says Hughes shares his
anecdotes of his time with Basie with the audience and introduces each
tune with some historical notes.
Freelon, who has been nominated for five Grammy Awards, began singing
as a five-year-old in church but didn’t start her singing career until
well after she got out of college. Raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
Freelon majored in healthcare administration at Simmons College in
Boston. Freelon’s mother was a housewife and her father worked for
Hewlett-Packard in Boston for more than 30 years. Later Freelon’s
mother went back to college and became a teacher.
‘My parents both sang and there was always a lot of singing going on
at our house," she says. "My father really loved big band music. He
loved Count Basie, Billy Eckstine, and the other big bands. I always
thought jazz was dance music, and it wasn’t until I got much older
that I got acquainted with Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter.
"There was a lot of great radio in Boston, and it was diverse. Growing
up, I listened to the Motown sounds and group harmony music," she
says, "and the sounds of Philadelphia, all the groups who really did
come out of a gospel and blues tradition. That’s what I was attracted
to, and it wasn’t until later, when I became an adult and decided I
wanted to sing, that those early influences came back to me."
Freelon says she was attracted to jazz singing because there was more
room for improvising and creating one’s own sound. "I think if I
hadn’t been exposed to it early on through my dad’s record collection,
I wouldn’t have reached for that."
Freelon’s jazz singing career only began to take shape until after
she’d gotten married and had three children, after she’d relocated
with her husband, an architect, to Durham. "I was not really sure what
I wanted to do," she says of her career crossroads, after spending
much of her time in high school and college working in hospitals. "I
loved singing, but it didn’t seem like a career move. I’d had an
education and was a good writer and knew plenty about hospital
administration, but I was home with three small children. My husband
encouraged me to pursue my passion, because he knew when he was seven
that he wanted to be an architect, so he does what he loves."
Freelon says Durham, a relatively small university city, offered a
surprisingly decent amount of jazz, if you looked around. Then, her
grandmother provided her with a revelation in a phone conversation
back home to Boston. "I was really sort of venting about my life, and
how I really wanted to sing jazz. She said, ‘Bloom where you are
planted. If you want to sing, do it where you are.’"
Freelon began looking around Durham and found a vibrant but
little-known community of jazz musicians based at the arts council.
Yuseff Saleem ran a jazz workshop there, and he introduced Freelon to
other jazz musicians who were living in the Durham area.
"There also was a wonderful record store here and I got to know the
owner, ’cause he knew I was crazy about Nancy Wilson," she says. "He
said to me, ‘Let me introduce you to Little Jimmy Scott, who
influenced Nancy Wilson.’ So I began getting records by all of these
singers I never had a chance to explore before. What I realized was
that jazz is a whole community that has been influenced by each other.
Like with Carmen McRae, you can easily identify her singing by the
things she did that were uniquely her own. So here in Durham, my
mentors and jazz angels pushed me to find out what that was for me."
Freelon began taking piano lessons and learning to sing several new
tunes each week – thanks to her husband’s healthy architecture income.
By 1992 she was offered a deal with Columbia Records. After three
albums there, Freelon began recording for the California-based Concord
"As my bank of knowledge increased, my opportunities increased,"
Freelon says. "There was a time when I only knew five tunes. That grew
incrementally and there was a time when I had a gig at the Sheraton on
Thursday nights, with just a guitarist. That residency there really
helped me develop my ear, and then I began to wade out into a bigger
pond, and I met [drummer] Max Roach and [pianist] Dr. Billy Taylor. I
applied for an NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] grant and studied
with Yuseff Lateef for a year."
Freelon’s latest album for Concord Records, "Live," recorded at the
Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.. last February, is far from a
straight-ahead jazz album. She interprets Stevie Wonder’s "My Cherie
Amour," Smokey Robinson’s "The Tears of a Clown," "The Circle Song,"
and Brazilian pop composer Milton Nascimento’s "Nothing Will Be As It
Was." She even covers "If I Only Had a Brain." The album is very well
recorded, with just the right hints of audience ambience and humorous
between-song patter. Her other albums for Concord include "Church:
Songs of Soul and Inspiration," "Tales of Wonder," "Soulcall," and
"Maiden Voyage," her debut for the label.
At McCarter, Freelon says, "There’ll be plenty of things people
recognize, like ‘April in Paris,’ ‘Shiny Stockings,’ and ‘One O’Clock
Jump,’ but the Basie book is so far-reaching and broad, the band can’t
carry all the music in that book." As a result, conductor Bill Hughes
"has the interesting job of trying to keep the guys wanting to explore
the Basie book but not wearing people out. The music and the
arrangements are demanding."
Freelon, even at the top of her game, is looking down the road at
opportunities yet undiscovered. "My singing has been a journey, and it
continues to be a journey."
Count Basie Orchestra with Nnenna Freelon, Saturday, March 5, 8 p.m.,
McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. $39 to $42. 609-258-2787.
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