- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2000

Nnenna Freelon is feeling fulfilled as she returns to the District of Columbia today for a two-night stand at Blues Alley.

The jazz vocalist's new recording her sixth in eight years is a distinctly personal blend of spiritual and secular influences. Miss Freelon took the production reins herself for the first time, composed the title tune, "soulcall," and contributed new arrangements and lyrics to standards.

And this rising star, steeped in jazz tradition, is about to get her first mass exposure: She sings, as herself, in a key night-club scene in the movie "What Women Want," a romantic comedy starring Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt that opens in December.

In short, Miss Freelon has come a long way to get where she wanted to be from her days as a young mother and hospital administrator struggling to find the courage to pursue her dream of becoming a jazz singer.

"It is a project that sort of brings me full circle in the sense that I started singing in the church and have always wanted to sing sacred music on record," Miss Freelon says of "soulcall," her captivating third release on Concord Records. "And I used as a concept music that pulled my soul, called my soul, whether it was a sacred tune or not."

Standouts among the 13 tracks include a playful cover of the Nat King Cole classic "Straighten Up and Fly Right" featuring the vocal group Take 6; a percolating, scat-laden reworking of "Button Up Your Overcoat" updated with references to David Letterman and Oprah Winfrey; a deft merging of Rodgers & Hart's "You're Nearer" with the traditional hymn "Nearer My God to Thee"; and a piano- and percussion-punctuated rephrasing of "I Say a Little Prayer."

"Jesus does not have to be in the lyric for you to be connected with spirit, with the heavenly," Miss Freelon explains in a short interview Tuesday from her hotel during a tour stop in Minneapolis. "I have been transformed and transported by Billie Holiday's voice to the very same place I have been by Mahalia Jackson. I think in these days and times, anything that makes us feel better about ourselves and uplifts us is worthy. There is so much out there that is not about that."

Nnenna Freelon is a big believer in what she calls "celebrating the spirit that we all share." (Nnenna, pronounced "NEE-na" and actually her middle name, is Nigerian for "first-born daughter" while her given first name, Chinyere, means "gift of God.")

The Boston-born singer was raised in Cambridge, Mass., surrounded by songs of praise at Union Baptist Church and by jazz and R&B; at home, where both parents loved to sing.

In the 1970s, she fell for the soulful harmonies of vocal groups such as the Stylistics, Chi-Lites and Spinners. In the 1980s, after starting a family in North Carolina, she immersed herself in jazz collecting the records of celebrated and obscure greats, studying under admired musicians and performing where and when she could.

"Once I decided to work on my music, I never looked back," she says. "My husband really, really encouraged me. He said, 'If you want to do this, do it.' And my grandmother said, 'Bloom where you are planted.' "

Miss Freelon's break came in 1990, when jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis brought her to the attention of Columbia Records, which released the first of three albums in 1992.

These days, the three-time Grammy nominee's way of giving back is as an advocate for arts education and as national spokeswoman for the National Association of Partners in Education , which promotes volunteerism in public schools.

Her other new composition, "One Child at a Time," articulates that cause of instilling goals and values. With gospel harmonies by Sounds of Blackness, it has a fighting chance to become a pop hit.

Miss Freelon says the tune was inspired by her six-month residency last year at the District's Cardozo High School, where she helped students write songs that they went on to perform at the Kennedy Center last May.

"The lyrics came out of those kids who were dealing with those mean streets, yet they could still sing. That to me was so amazing and such an inspiration.

"Any casual look at a national newspaper will show that the fracturing of our families is playing out in our schools," she adds. "If you don't have money, give time volunteering to read to a first-grader once or twice a week. The violence is spilling over beyond the schools and into our own back yards.

"And they're our future. It sounds so trite, but they're going to be in charge in a minute, and we'll be old and helpless. We'd better do something. I like to look at it as a soulcall as an opportunity to say, 'What can I do?' "

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