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REVIEW: Nnenna Freelon Honors Billie Holiday with Blueprint of a Lady

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Should my song recalling you be sung in shades of black and blue? Should I imitate your style?

Sing until you know who you are and why you came/Sing until you know your own name…You may sing a Lady song, sweet drawl soft and low/but only if the song is you and only you will know.

I didn’t fall in love with Blueprint of a Lady, but Blueprint of a Lady made me fall in love with Nnenna Freelon.

Attempting to pay tribute to an icon is challenge enough. Being willing to deliberately break the mold and make Billie Holiday’s songs one’s own when you KNOW you are going to ruffle the feathers of many a purist is beyond courageous. It’s nearly crazy.

It’s hardly a way to ensure unanimously glowing reviews.

Freelon went for it anyway. On purpose. Open-eyed and courageously willing to step into an artistic dialogue that will challenge her audience, she doesn’t expect you to love every interpretation and nuance. And, as she expressed in her interview in Jazz Improv while working on this project, she’s okay with that and hopes you are, too.

If you can get the Billie Holiday template out of your head, the album on a whole is lovely.

Freelon has an irrepressibly joyful voice. Perfect accompaniment for an intimate Sunday morning champagne brunch, her voice plays atop Brandon McCune’s piano and dances with the saxophone of Dave Ellis like sunlight on a rippling pond. She skips and sparkles and you can feel that her heart is happiest when she is singing. (It gives me chills to think she ever could have tried to continue on as a hospital administrator!)

This is the very reason this particular effort fell short for me. Freelon’s vibrant spirit , mixing playful phrasing with hints of seductive teasing worked well in “Them There Eyes” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”. Her reggae infused “Take All of Me” was fresh and added to the overall sense that you are listening to a woman who really enjoys her voice (and rightfully so for it is indeed lovely!)

When it came to the heart rending lyrics of “Strange Fruit” and “Willow Weep for Me”, however, I felt Freelon’s interpretation missed the mark, badly. The vocal agility that is so engaging throughout much of the CD worked against the lyrics here resulting in an unfortunate disconnect of the singer from the emotional depth and complexity of these songs.

So, when the ingenue asks “Should my song recalling you be sung in shades of black and blue? ” in Freelon’s original, beautiful “Only You Will Know”, I think Billie’s encouragement should have held a caveat: “Feel free to play, but some songs really ARE black and blue. If you are red and gold and orange, own that.”

Has Freelon expressed her full artistic depth through this project? No.

Do I think she tried a little too hard at times and followed her voice more than the voice of the selected songs? Yes.

Did I think the effort was inconsistent as a result? Yes.

Do I admire Freelon for taking on this project and her willingness to explore her art publicly, even knowing she is likely to receive mixed reviews? Oh yeah!

In fact, there is MUCH to admire in Freelon. Her courage to leave a traditional career to pursue her art. Her dedication to arts education. Her willingness to weave her love of music with her passion for health care, education and volunteerism. And references in her interviews to the likes of Parker Palmer and Rumi?! This is a woman of depth. Beautiful, talented, educated and commited to doing good work in the world. I can forgive her for “Willow”.

This CD will be a fine addition to your collection if you are looking for an impressive vocal talent and bright fresh instrumentals for a delicious weekend morning.

Serious jazz afficianados may find the inconsistency a bit hard to take.

Is Freelon worth following and is she going to strike a gold vein in her craft as she continues the exploration of her creative potential?

Yes and I sincerely hope so. I can feel it in there…just three feet to the left.

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About Laura Young

  • godoggo

    Not many people know Frelon, but lots know Holliday. Little suggestion: make a title that people will want to click on.

  • http://antwatching.blogspot.com/ Laura Young

    done. thanks!