The first time you hear Freedom Jazz Dance, the latest album from Cynthia Felton, you will be impressed by the purity of her vocals and her command of the jazz idiom. The more you listen, the more impressed you will be. This is a vocalist steeped in tradition. She understands the contributions of the ladies of past generations, and she understands the need to build upon them. She knows that the true artist needs to find her own voice and, if Freedom Jazz Dance is any indication, she has found it, and jazz fans are going to be very glad she has.
The album’s 12 tracks, she tells us in the liner notes, are a “collection of my favorite standards to sing.” It won’t take long for them to become a collection of your favorite standards to listen to. She starts with an impassioned a cappella version of the spiritual “Oh Freedom” in a nod to the gospel roots of jazz, before morphing into innovative takes on the Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck classic “Take Five” and the Rogers and Hart perennial “My Funny Valentine.” “Take Five” features some nice tenor sax work from Ernie Watts, and “Valentine” opens with the solo trumpet of Wallace Roney and features some interesting bass ‘improv’ from Robert Hurst. A variety of different musicians accompany the singer on the various tracks.
“Better Than Anything” is one of the less well known pieces on the disc; it gives the singer the opportunity to swing the blues and add a little scat. Cyrus Chestnut adds a sweet piano solo and Nolan Shaheed is on the trumpet. “My Love Is” and Charles Mingus’s “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” two more less familiar tunes follow, and Felton’s performance has to make you wonder why they aren’t heard more often.
“Close Your Eyes” opens lullaby-like with Hurst’s bass and Felton’s soft vocal, before she begins to swing with a straight ahead vibel leading to a guitar solo from Ronald Muldrow, and some additional scatting. The old Nat “King” Cole hit “Nature Boy” gets a little Latin American vibe from Felton. Patrice Rushen handles the piano and Terri Lyne Carrington the drums. Felton comes in at the end and wails to a dynamite climax. It is one of the album’s many highlights.
The Kurt Weill classic ballad “Lost in the Stars” gets a dynamic treatment from Felton. This is followed by a wild romp through Ray Noble’s “Cherokee” accompanied by Edwin Livingston’s bass and Nolan Shaheed’s trumpet. The Bergman Legrand ballad “What Are you Doing the Rest of Your Life?” follows and the album ends with its title song, “Freedom Jazz Dance.” The first gets an eloquent atmospheric treatment from the singer; the second is a rhythmic celebration with some strong piano solo work from John Beasley. Lorca Hart drives it forward on the drums. It is a real tour de force.
Cynthia Felton’s Freedom Jazz Dance is as fine a jazz album as you’re likely to come across for the rest of the year. She is the kind of singer that can take a great song and make it her own. Listen to her version of “Cherokee,” and if it isn’t heresy, it may well make you forget Charlie Barnett. Her “Nature Boy” will give the “King” a run for his money.