During the last decade, Durham-based Nnenna Freelon has metamorphosed from a jazz singer operating firmly in the tradition to a full-fledged trendsetter, crossing genre lines without fear. Soulcall, her third Concord date but first as producer, demonstrates the vocalist's realization that the old barn called the American Popular Song could use a fresh coat of paint. Brushing away with bold colors, Freelon decorates familiar tunes with modern strokes, whether stripping away conventional harmony or mixing up old-school swing with a backbeat.
Spin Dionne Warwick's famous version of Burt Bacharach's "Say a Little Prayer," then Freelon's. It's like starting supper with a sip of sweet tea, then upgrading to something combustible in a shot glass for dessert. Freelon's "Prayer" is minor-keyed and moody, framing the voice of a woman not only in love, but in charge.
Freelon reprises another familiar lyric on "Button Up Your Overcoat," the trusty bedtime ballad. "Take good care of yourself," she singsongs coyly. "You belong to me." The song's innocence disappears as the boys in the band start funking things up a la Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters. Co-written by the singer, the nifty arrangement jettisons chord changes, turning "Button Up" into an urban modal jam with pungent horns. Propelling Freelon's hip scat is Chris Potter's moaning blue saxophone, and Joe Beck, whose quick-picked guitar mimics a rooster in full strut.
While such caustic moments reveal the singer's newfound brashness, Soulcall does not forsake tender emotions. Two understated duets pair pretty words and precious melodies. In one, Takana Miyamoto splashes minimalist piano on "Amazing Grace" while Freelon's voice climbs gull-like to the heavens. Later, Beck and Freelon dance the samba, taking Stevie Wonder's "If It's Magic" to Brazil.
As if to say "Redemption cuts both ways," Freelon revisits "Amazing Grace" to conclude the CD. The second take is downright sassy: sanctified, yet bad to the bone. This rambunctious trio version blends gospel feelings with jazz virtuosity, an attitude Freelon has endorsed since surfacing alongside Brother Yusuf Salim at Triangle piano-bars 20 years ago. Part preacher, part diva: Freelon has always sung divinely.