Durham jazz singer Nnenna Freelon kicks off a fall tour this weekend at Raleigh's Fletcher Opera Theater, where she'll be joined by her son's band, The Beast + Big Band, for a night of tantalizing vocal jazz exploration. After a weeklong stint in Hawaii at the end of October, she'll return to Durham to dive into her next endeavor, a multifaceted theatrical project called The Clothesline Muse, in which she explores, as she puts it, "the clothesline as a metaphor of our community lifeline and its ties to our environment."
Heavy stuff, yes. But on a Wednesday morning in her Durham home, the ever-lighthearted musician spoke about her beginnings, Anita Baker and the cellphone blues.
INDY WEEK: Your first album came out in 1992. What were you doing to prepare for the beginning of what has become such an accomplished career?
NNENNA FREELON: Wow, what a question. This thing is a journey and I don't think you can prepare except to just decide that you're going to stay the course, and that the journey is more important than any particular kind of destination like a Grammy nomination or an award. Those things may come, but they may not.
I had goals, but I also had a skill set that was there. Along the road you pick up things to do your best. Back in 1992, I had just signed with Columbia Records, just completed my first record, and dreams were coming true. I didn't have much experience touring, so putting together a band, working with all-star groups and being an opening act—all that stuff was new. Then I did a world tour at the end of 1992, and that turned my head around because I got a chance to sing in places that I never thought I'd even get to visit—places like Korea, the Philippines, Japan and all over eastern and western Europe.
So, fast-forward to today; What things are you still learning about your own voice and jazz in general?
I feel like I'm in the best voice of my entire career. For one, I've been blessed, but I've had really good vocal training from a local teacher whose name is Martha Flowers. She lives in Chapel Hill. That early training that I got about protecting the voice and singing in a way that involves a technique with a mind to sing with an open throat has been a saving grace for me. When you're working five nights a week, two sets a night, and the voice is tired, there are things you can do, like not indulging in activities to excess. Or trying not to, anyway.
I've been blessed with really good health and that's awesome. I've seen some of my contemporaries like George Duke and others around the same age who have passed on. It gives you wakeup call to be grateful for your health. Singing is a physical thing. It's a little different than playing the drums or saxophone. You're relying on your physical strength to do what you do. But not only do I feel like my voice is in really good shape, I feel like my ideas are also. I used to worry so much about achieving this or that or being compared to this one or that one, but I feel really comfortable in my own skin. I feel OK with it. Boy, is that a weight off of one's shoulders, when you really feel OK with it.
What makes Martha Flowers stand out as a vocal coach?
I think that early in your career, you sing in a very natural and intuitive way, and that isn't always the best thing for your voice. You see pop singers falling like flies; [they've] gotten really great opportunities and then the next thing you know, they're in the hospital. That kind of natural singing where you don't have a technique can lead you down the path of vocal nodules and really difficult vocal problems. Because some of the things that have to do with vocal technique are not intuitive ... So, that growly sound, that sound of ache and tear in the voice—if you do it the wrong way, you really will be crying. It involves squeezing the vocal cords together and then pushing the air through. It's just knowledge.
Martha also loves the voice. She's one of the first people I've ever met that enjoys warming up. She would smile and just go up and down the scales and she just looked like she was having an awesome time. I adopted that approach. She just taught me how to honor, love, respect and protect my instrument. She taught me that if there's a day where there's a little area of concern, go to that with the warm-up and also with love and kindness.
In jazz, I can make a different choice. If there's an area that feels weak, I can say, "Well, you know what? We're not going there. We're going to go over there." That's not true for people singing other kinds of repertoire, where it's imperative that they hit the note that was written on the page every time in an exact way. We have a different set of challenges—creating, being in the moment and responding to the other members of the band in a way that's fresh, musical and personal.
All of this reminds me of something Anita Baker said in a recent interview about how some young sound engineers are so used to working with pop artists that they don't really know how to record someone like her. Do you feel the same way?
Not really. But what Anita and I do have in common is that we evolved from the live performance world into the recording world—not the other way around. If you've come from a recording world first, where you patch things together and use different techniques to correct the pitch and change the vibrato and make it sound the way you want it to, duplicating that in the world may be a different thing. I'm not hating, I'm just saying: Some people's goal is not to tour. Steely Dan was like that. They weren't touring at first.
In October, you're also appearing at a food and arts benefit for the Lucy Daniels Center, where chefs will be preparing dishes inspired by your music. On the flip side, how has food inspired your own work?
Well, I love to cook, and all of the great artists I know love food and like cooking. It's a similar thing. You put in a little bit of this and that. I find that it's very jazz-like. What I try to do is not eat four hours before a show. A full stomach makes it difficult to sing. I'm just thrilled to share my art form with the chef's art form. It's such a compatible relationship.
What they do in terms of texture—I have texture in what I do. I look for texture. They're looking for overall tone in the flavor of a sauce. I also look for tone. They're looking for something piquant and hot and spicy. I also like that in my music. There are a lot of connections between cooking and this improvisational art form that we call jazz.
You've been heavily invested in arts education. Can you speak to how children inspire you, and your will to inspire and teach children?
OK, those little people who've never heard of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and certainly have never heard of Nnenna Freelon—that's my future right there. Those little faces are future performers, audience members. And those little people are also going to be in charge in about 15 years. So, I want to be nice to them. I want them to remember that they met this jazz lady when they were in the second, third and fourth grade.
I have people come up to me in Kroger and ask, "Didn't you come to ..." I'm looking at this person thinking, "You are a full-grown woman. And you're talking to me like ..." It just kind of freaks me out. But it also makes me feel real good. Children need to touch and feel this music. They can't come to the club, [and] they're not likely to ask their parents for tickets, so going to them is something that I value.
Your show this weekend is also a benefit for Shaw University's radio station. Can you talk a little bit about jazz preservation, especially on stations that serve the black community?
Shaw Radio has been very supportive from the beginning of my career. So I said yes very quickly. We see opportunities to hear different points of view disappearing all over the country. Right here, close to home, I'm very much an advocate of different points of view, even ones that I disagree with. I think it's a good thing to have jazz radio in our ears and a radio station that's committed to letting us know what's happening in the community that we live in.
As much as we may enjoy some of these Internet stations from all over the world, they're not talking about our community. Sirius really has nothing to say about what's happening on the ground in East Raleigh. Shaw University not only lets us hear this music that is a part of our cultural landscape, but it also gives us news that affects us. Those voices need to be preserved with money, with our ears and our hearts.
Is that something that you think about on a song like "Cell Phone Blues"? How much of that is just you wanting to have a little bit of fun, and how much of it is trying to give jazz a different context?
Yeah, I want to have fun. We don't have enough fun. But when I write my songs, I write from experience. I'm not a gun for hire, where I just write whatever people ask me to write. That particular song came from my observations about people being tethered to a piece of equipment and ignoring the reality in front of them. It was tongue-in-cheek, but I pulled from the tradition of an old blues tune.
Jazz artists delve into standard material like Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Duke Ellington. We cover a lot of those tunes, but I love hearing new music brought to the fore. For the music to remain relevant, we need new stories and not just, "Cigarette holder, which wigs me/Over her shoulder, she digs me." That's cool, but we ain't supposed to be smoking, and that idiom "she digs me" could be lost on a whole generation of people.
How does performing and collaborating with younger acts, like your son Pierce Freelon's band, The Beast + Big Band, help you convey those new stories?
My son, The Beast, and all of his beautiful and fabulous compadres have taught me a lot about this music and about their approach. I have a blast whenever we have a chance to work together. We respect where each other is coming from.
We don't have enough intergenerational connection [in music]. We don't spend enough time working together. And I think that jazz has a lot to offer young musicians, and the hip-hop guys have a lot to teach us also.
I'm not saying that I'm going to move from what really informs my music, but I am saying, "Let's have a conversation." And I ain't scared of the groove. I'll groove all night. But I do get a little weary if that's all we can do. So I can teach you a little something about melody if you teach me a little something about groove.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Voice of experience."