Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Freelon Great!

By Michael Henningsen

FEBRUARY 23, 1999:  Whoever decided that Shania Twain, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Celine Dion are divas, worthy of performing alongside Aretha Franklin (who is certainly the only true diva among the aforementioned) probably refers to Pop Tarts as flaky pastries and prides his or her self on each and every new cubic zirconia purchase. But without a doubt, this mystery person has never heard an angel sing, has never heard Nnenna Freelon.

Breast implants, a high-pitched squeal, a half-assed pout and the ability to make lyrics like "I believe that children are the future" half-way believable do not a diva make. It takes real class, a soulful set of pipes and the ability to wield a melody with such skill that the music itself evokes not just the emotion written into the theme, but also the brilliantly colored emotions listeners never knew they had. And the diva will be able to adjust the tints and hues at will, recreating a song each time she sings it. Listening to Nnenna Freelon's 1999 release, Maiden Voyage (Concord), the differences between dime-a-dozen singers and true vocal artists become instantly--and crystal--clear.

Freelon began her meteoric rise to diva status in 1990 after jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis caught wind of her vocal abilities. The chance meeting led to a deal with Columbia Records and her self-titled debut in 1992. In the years that have followed, Freelon has twice been nominated for a GRAMMY, won the Billie Holiday, Eubie Blake and Soul Train Lady of Soul awards, and performed with Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Clark Terry, Dianne Reeves and other respected jazz musicians. Recently, and most notably, Freelon joined T.S. Monk's Monk on Monk album and tour in 1997, prompting critics to laud her as "the greatest female vocalist to come along in three decades."

On Maiden Voyage, Freelon explores the spirit of some of the most passionate, powerful women songwriters of the day--from Nina Simone to Laura Nyro. But her interpretations instantly transform whatever she sings into something all her own. "Not all of the women [represented on the record] are jazz singers," she says. "But because I'm a jazz singer, everything I do is filtered through my own lens. So it really doesn't matter if I do a Laura Nyro song or a Buffy Sainte-Marie song, because I'm looking at the music through my own peculiar lens."

Peculiar as her lens may be, listening to Freelon croon her way through the album's 12 tracks is like viewing life through rose-colored glasses. Live, she generates enough musical electricity to light a small city for days. Which is, in fact, exactly what she does.


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