- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

The Jazz Club at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts welcomes vocalist Nnenna Freelon to its stage tonight.

Ms. Freelon, who makes her home in Durham, N.C., calls the Kennedy Center “my home away from home.” Fitting then that her next CD, due out next month , is a live album recorded at the Kennedy Center in February of this year.

The CD is a beguiling, lively mix of standards, recent popular songs and original tracks. From “If I Only Had a Brain” to “Body and Soul” to “Tears of a Clown,” Ms. Freelon’s warm alto nestles comfortably into each tune. With a nod to her previous release, “Tales of Wonder,” a Stevie Wonder tribute album, “Nnenna Freelon Live” also includes Mr. Wonder’s classic “My Cherie Amour,” with a little “la-la-la” help from the audience.

“The Kennedy Center is an unusual venue to perform in because it attracts a real diverse audience,” she says. “It’s wonderful to speak to people after the show and meet someone from Peru or Brazil or Ireland.” And because its ticket prices aren’t so “crazy,” the less well-heeled can attend Kennedy Center shows, she notes.

Ms. Freelon has been recording for more than 10 years and “Live” is her eighth CD. The multiple Grammy-nominee and mother of three children, ages 19 to 23, says she is “happy where I am, and I’m trying to stay here as long as I can.” Asked how she has balanced her home life (her husband is an architect) with her musical career, Ms. Freelon says with a chuckle, “What is ‘balance’? You do it the best way you know how at the moment. I say wherever I am that’s where I’m supposed to be, and I try not to get too worried about being in that other place that I’m not.”

The jazzy singer says she draws her inspiration from R&B; musical heroes she grew up listening such as Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind and Fire.

“There was such a social consciousness around me growing up, so I gravitated to artists who had something to say besides ‘boogie on down,’” she explains.

That sensitivity is reflected in her musical repertoire, the bulk of which are familiar pop classics. She says she chooses songs that tell a story, lyrically and melodically, that she can connect with. She cites her version of “Button Up Your Overcoat” as an example of a song that “in our cultural memory is kind of corny, but everyone seems to know it. We arranged it with a hip-hop feel because we wanted to have fun with it.”

“Fun,” Ms. Freelon says, is a big part of her agenda. “Fun is really underrated. We’re serious musicians in that we’re dedicated to our art, but we want to have a ball. We have fun, we get sentimental in places, serious in places with songs that have a social message. But I see my role in helping people see outside their little boxes for a few minutes.”

Describing her concert this evening as a record preview in celebration of the Kennedy Center’s newest performance space, Ms. Freelon says she will be backed by the same musicians who performed with her for the “Live” CD.

“We have a very interactive band,” she says of her quintet. “You can see it on our faces and our body language that we just love what we’re doing, and we love it when we can see that the audience is into it as well.

“But this is music to be digested and we want you to move and flow with us and have a full, fun experience. And if that means you make a little noise, cool. That doesn’t offend or frighten us. But if you feel more comfortable just nodding your heads, that’s OK, too,” she says.

There will likely be a whole lot of noise going on at the National Mall today when Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige and Aerosmith headline the live broadcast event that kicks off the 2003 season of the National Football League with a free concert.

Also performing are the Waldorf, Md., band Good Charlotte and the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, who is scheduled to sing the National Anthem. This is the second such event, which the NFL apparently wants to make an annual tradition.

Expect to hear Miss Spears, Ms. Blige and Aerosmith debut songs from their newest CDs.

Miss Spears is currently wrapping up production on her highly-anticipated CD, due in November, which promises to show just how much the 21-year-old has grown up since during her self-imposed hiatus after the 2001 CD “Britney.”

Hip-hop diva Blige, on the other hand, has returned to her roots for her newest CD “love & life” for which she reunited with Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, who discovered and produced her groundbreaking 1991 debut “What’s the 411?”

And Aerosmith, currently on tour with the rock band Kiss, may give a sneak peek of a track from their still-untitled CD due in early 2004.

No tickets are required for the star-studded event and a select few will be admitted to an area right in front of the stage. Jumbotrons will be placed throughout the Mall for those who can’t get close.

The event will be broadcast live on ABC and will be followed by Game 1 of the 2003 season between the Washington Redskins and New York Jets.

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