In our mobile culture, the notion of “home” conjures up comfort, relaxation, the congenial touchstone of the soul. “There’s no place like home,” intones the young Judy Garland as Dorothy in the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, while troubadour Paul Simon pines for the familiar in the 1966 Simon & Garfunkel hit, “Homeward Bound.”
As the saying goes, home is where the heart is, which is the sensibility behind esteemed jazz vocalist and multi-Grammy® nominee Nnenna Freelon’s latest recording, Homefree, her seventh Concord Jazz album as a leader and first studio outing since 2005. It’s a soulful, swinging homegrown CD, recorded at Sound Pure Studios in Durham, North Carolina, which, she says, “has been my home base for 28 years.” The album is an 11-track collection that Freelon calls her “home brew,” comprised largely of tunes that have been road-tested by her stellar touring band as well as a new original (the witty, playful and poignant “Cell Phone Blues” composed by the singer) and spirited arrangements of two anthems (the gospel treasure “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and the national hymn “America the Beautiful”) that close the CD.
“When you travel, you have to expend a lot of energy to set up shop and get yourself comfortable,” says Freelon, who has been crisscrossing the globe over the last several years. “So, I decided that rather than record my new album away from home to do it here, surrounded by all the things that help to shape me as a person and as a singer.” She notes that 10 years ago, such a luxury was implausible. But given the technological advances in recording, “the playing field has been leveled,” she says. “People are even recording great music in their basements. But I feel fortunate that we now have a world-class recording studio in Durham, which is where we recorded this project.”
So, instead of exporting her operation for Homefree, she imported from New York recording engineer Josiah Gluck, who recorded most of her Concord Jazz albums, and from the San Francisco Bay Area producer and Concord VP Nick Phillips, who along with Freelon, co-produced her previous Concord Jazz recording, the Grammy® nominated Blueprint of a Lady: Sketches of Billie Holiday (Freelon jokes that this time Phillips had to travel, but he didn’t have to sing). In addition, home played an important role in the musicians whom Freelon recorded- Freelon enlisted North Carolina-based artists that she calls “heroes” who have deep roots in the community and music of the region. “There are wonderful artists here who always bring their best and honest intention,” Freelon says. As a result the three days of recording sessions in her hometown proved to be relaxing and fun.
Augmenting her longtime (nearly ten years!) touring band (pianist Brandon McCune, bassist Wayne Batchelor, drummer Kinah Ayah and percussionist Beverly Botsford) are artists with whom Freelon has enjoyed a long history: flugelhornist Ray Codrington (“I’ve known Ray for more than 20 years; he’s an elder”), guitarist Scott Sawyer and tenor saxophonist Ira Wiggins (both 20-year colleagues), bassist John Brown (who worked her first tour), and her son Pierce Freelon, who makes his debut recording with mom, rapping on “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
“Most of the songs on Homefree are part of our repertoire,” says Freelon. “We’ve tested them on the road, getting insight on what works and what doesn’t by looking at how our audiences respond. That’s different from many recordings where you start at the studio and tour the music. The way we recorded this CD meant that the music was deeper in our bones. It also shows how the way we originally played the tunes gradually changed shape. These are all songs that were well-tested and loved and ready to record.”
Homefree opens with a brisk swing through “The Lamp Is Low,” which Freelon says is a “song I’ve loved for a long time that offers me a high-energy way of opening our shows on the road.” That’s followed by the laid-back and easy-flowing arrangement of “I Feel Pretty,” the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim West Side Story classic that features Codrington’s soulful flugelhorn lines. It’s been in the band’s songbook for some five years, including a jazz show at the Kennedy Center for Miss America contestants and their escorts.
While many of the tunes on Homefree are highly arranged and highly styled, Freelon says the performance of Ray Noble’s standard ballad, “The Very Thought of You,” required one request: just sing me. “This is such a soulful song that reaches deep into the emotion of love,” she says, then adds that working with Wiggins, who blows a smoky tenor throughout, made for “an ease of conversation, an honest moment that wasn’t about rushing in” to make a flurry of musical statements.
The Charlie Chaplin-et al. standard “Smile,” a cooker that features key changes and tempo acceleration, is another tour favorite. In Freelon’s arrangement, the tune picks up speed during McCune’s jaunty piano solo. “This song wants to lean forward,” she says. “It’s like being on the back of a horse.” She adds, “Smile’ makes for a happy moment. It’s my personal opinion that people don’t smile enough. In our set, this song gives me the opportunity to take a deep breath. And you can see people visibly relax. It’s as if they’re thinking, ‘This is jazz; it’s good for me.’”
Well-known for rendering standards in a nonstandard way, Freelon creates a new statement on the Hoagy Carmichael-Johnny Mercer gem, “Skylark,” that she arranged as a bluesy muse with two bassists (Batchelor and Brown). “For me, the bass is the instrument I lock into,” she says. “The bass is the earth and I’m the wind that needs that earth beneath me. I wanted to explore using two bassists with me because it requires an agreement that’s not overtly stated about how to occupy and share a sonic space. I’m very pleased with the way this arrangement works. ‘Skylark’ is a song I recorded before, but I always like to return to it again and again in different ways.”
Other highlights include a soulful groove through “You and the Night and the Music,” arranged by drummer Ayah; a skipping, reggae-tinged rendition of Cole Porter’s “Get Out of Town,” that was arranged jointly by the band turning the standard upside down during a sound check; and, a new tune to the band’s set, the rarely covered André Previn-written beauty, “Theme from Valley of the Dolls.” Of the latter, Freelon notes that she loved Dionne Warwick’s take on the tune, but is surprised by its relative absence from the bandstand. She also stretches in singing it: “I chose to sing in a deeper register than I usually do. I want to explore my voice, to explore the ranges just like any instrument. In this case, I love the warm vocal quality that came as a result.”
In regards to her own song, the chugging “Cell Phone Blues”—which features sassy lyrics about the “talk talk” and the “can’t get no sugar from a cell phone” when “I’m in the mood for love”— Freelon says, “This is a page from my book of life. I always tell my [vocal] students to sing from an honest place, from their own experiences. Well, this is about my love/hate relationship with my phone. It’s also another song that gives the band and me a chance to have fun. Our audience thinks it’s a hoot.”
As for ending Homefree with two very recognized tunes, Freelon says their poignancy resonates with modern life. In the band’s library for the last couple of years, “America the Beautiful” has evolved in its arrangement as the band toured worldwide amidst all of the global uncertainty, from wars being raged to political bantering to the stock market crash. “I’ve sung this song since I was a little kid,” Freelon says. “It was a challenge to arrange this so that it spoke from my heart. What we’ve come up with is a tune that speaks to me and to the audience that is reacting to the words—that despite all the problems, America is a wonderful country. It certainly has its issues, but it holds a lot of beauty too.”
Another song that Freelon grew up with, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (aka “The Negro National Anthem” or “The Black National Anthem”), gets treated to a new rap-styled gospel treatment, to “reach a new audience with a different feel,” says Freelon. This tune, perhaps more than the others, sums up the essence of Homefree. “This song represents another aspect of home for me, coming of age in church and through the Civil Rights Movement,” she says. “But it also brings up the idea of home as country and culture, of being an artist.”
While the CD encompasses the physicality of home, Freelon attests with her music that being home free is also about the heart and soul and spirit.