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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

Records label.

"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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