There are some who say the number of great female jazz singers has considerably diminished in the last ten years or so. We have, of course, had the passing of legends Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae. We’ve been fortunate to see Dianne Reeves come into her own during that same time period but other than a few other notable vocalists (such as Diana Krall, oft-times jazz singer Rachelle Ferrell and Dee Dee Bridgewater, enjoying a renaissance), there have been few new names of note. Except of course, Nnenna Freelon. The North Carolina-based singer has been recording since 1992 and while her first few albums (for Columbia Records) received critical acclaim, it has been her most recent work for Concord Records that has catapulted her onto a new plateau of mainstream recognition.
Her 2000 Grammy-nominated “Soulcall” was undoubtedly her most successful set to date but it is likely to be eclipsed by “Tales Of Wonder: Celebrating Stevie Wonder,” her latest CD on Concord. My good buddy and make up artist extraordinaire, the always-in-tune Mr. Rudy Calvo tipped me off about the album after working with Nnenna on the cover art for the record and once I heard her interpretations of Wonder compositions like “Until You Come Back To Me,” “Overjoyed,” “My Cherie Amour” and “Another Star,” I understood. Rather than just re-doing the songs, Nnenna reinvents them in her own distinctive way.
Naturally, a chat with her was in order and she explained the reasoning behind her decision to do a tribute to the perennial musical genius. “This is the music I grew up with,” she notes. “I was very lucky because I had great parents who loved music and I was exposed to the work of Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald and other jazz artists. My parents identified it as their music and back then, it sounded ‘old-timey’ to me. I was listening to Earth, Wind & Fire, The Stylistics, Tower Of Power, the music of Motown and of course, Stevie. And his music is what I claimed. Now I can say it represents my standards in the way that the music of those other artists represented my parents’ standards to them…”
Like so many others, Wonder’s all-encompassing material had a profound impact on Nnenna during her own formative years. She reflects, “More so than many others, he had his finger on the pulse for our generation and he broke some of the rules musically. He wrote hopeful and intelligent lyrics – look at a great melodic journey like the song “Another Star.” He wrote for himself and yet his music was the soundtrack for more than one generation…”
The idea of doing an entire album in tribute to Stevie was a natural progression for Nnenna who had recorded several of Wonder tunes (including “Girl Blue,” “If It’s Magic” and “Visions”) on previous albums. “The challenge for me was to find a way to express myself within his creativity, to bring something fresh and unique, to add something not take something away,” Nnenna states. “Now, picking the song was so hard. I started researching about a year ago and there are over 300 songs of Stevie’s that have been published. We thought of maybe picking a certain period, say, 1972 to 1979 or maybe picking songs from one album. We ended up choosing tunes from each era and the selection evolved over time. There were some surprises like “Tears Of A Clown” (a 1970 hit for Smokey Robinson & The Miracles) – it was intriguing to me that Stevie wrote that. “My Cherie Amour” was the first song where I began to recognize Stevie’s artistry when I was growing up. I was in love with the soundtrack for “Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants” so I picked “Black Orchid” for the album…”
orking with producer John Snyder (known for his work with Etta James, Susan Tedeschi and reissues on artists like Aretha Franklin), Nnenna surrounded herself with musicians who would assist in the process of interpreting Stevie’s material including Gerald Veasley on bass, Chuck Loeb on guitar, Woody Williams on drums, Bashiri Johnson on percussion and Brandon McKuen on keyboards. Nnenna also enlisted the services of Bennie Diggs, known for his wonderful work with the New York Community Choir (and ‘70s group Revelation) and the producer of the great 2001 release “Rhythm & Spirit”) to assist with choosing songs and to work as a vocal coach for the sessions: “Bennie helped me give myself permission to just sing. He was so supportive and really helped me take a unique, personal and honest approach to the material. All the music was done ‘live’: since I come from a performing tradition so as much as possible, I like to keep the recording process ‘live’ so I can keep the feeling flowing…”
Nnenna is understandably and rightfully proud of “Tales Of Wonder” and she hopes that it will continue to expand the audience she has been building with each new release. She says that the response to her last set, “Soulcall” was
particularly heartening since she produced it herself. “It was something so personal, something I just had to get out. When I first started recording, I didn’t have any idea what I was getting into. For me, it’s not about the destination but about journey. I‘m enjoying what I’m doing more than ever. I’m trying to be a creative artist and one who continues to grow and of course, I‘d like it to translate into more and more people, bit by bit.”
In addition to a very active performing schedule that includes major jazz festivals and concerts in the U.S., Europe and Japan, Nnenna devotes some of her time to teaching: “I’m doing more workshops and bringing music to our youth, in conjunction with my concert schedule through universities and the public school system.” Concluding, Nnenna says, “I don’t think I’ve ‘arrived’ yet. I’ve had several Grammy nominations and I am working more than ever in larger venues. I want a long career and,” she laughs, “I want to be out here till they turn out the lights!” That seems more than likely: “Tales Of Wonder: Celebrating Stevie Wonder” which Nnenna terms “the soundtrack of my own life” is sure to find favor not just with her own audience but with a new set of record buyers who appreciate the special flavor she gives to songs that are truly the standards for the generations who grew up loving the music of Stevie Wonder.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.