The Limits of Taste and Purity
Nnenna Freelon has the best voice in jazz. It’s pure and bright and capable of more shadings than almost anyone else, it’s capable of going gospel to bop to slightly avant all in a few bars, it’s an awesome weapon. Sometimes, she doesn’t try to stretch it very far, but that’s a style thing, no point in grading her on what she doesn’t do, especially when what she does do is done so well.
Here, she puts that voice to work on an interesting and heartfelt tribute to Billie Holiday. There are 15 songs here, and 14 of them were either written by Holiday or are traditionally associated with her; the 15th is a Freelon original. All of these songs are recast in different versions, because this is Freelon’s move for ambition-credibility, and none of them sound bad or boring or stupid in their new clothes. (Well, okay, one of them does, but more later about that.) So Nnenna gets major points for trying hard to re-assess Holiday’s career, especially her legacy as a not-very-prolific but extremely effective songwriter.
She also gets major points for that voice, that voice, that beautiful voice. To hear her soar on the Latin-inflected “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” (now in 6/4 time with a 6/8 chorus) or the M-base-funk style employed on “Willow Weep for Me” is just a treat. And if you don’t like the way “Lover Man” now sounds like a mid-period Steely Dan waltz, you cannot fault the tasteful purity of Freelon’s phrasing.
But there is a limit to taste and purity. Despite all the ambitious recasting of Holiday’s songs, this album isn’t going to bowl anyone over with its power—Freelon seems to be holding back, making it easy to listen to. This does not mean “easy listening”, but it’s darn close on fake-neo-bop tracks like “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”, which is so easily digestible that it might be baby food. She may think she’s pushing the envelope by slowing “God Bless the Child” down to a sexy crawl with a restrained hip-hop beat (from yeoman Kinah Boto), and prefacing it with a spoken-word “When I was a child, I spoke as a child” Biblical riff, but it doesn’t work. Nothing hits harder than the original, and semi-scat-singing “And your pa-aa-aa-aa-aa-aa-pa may have” doesn’t actually symbolize depth the way it’s supposed to.
And some of the remakes just make no sense at all. The worst stinker here is the faux-reggae version of “All of Me” that closes things out, which doesn’t even begin to work, because Freelon and her band hold reggae at an arm’s-length jazzo distance. And the idea of turning “Them There Eyes” into a five-minute sad ballad—explained in the liner notes as a way to reference Holiday’s rape at age 11—is classic overthinking, and leads to Freelon trying to sing “They’re gonna get you in a whole lot of trouble” like she’s Cassandra Wilson 15 years ago… nope, doesn’t do it, not even a little bit.
Which is, again, to risk dinging Nnenna Freelon for not being Billie Holiday, which would be unfair, because NO ONE is Billie Holiday. And this is a great opportunity to hear one of our greatest jazz singers using her big beautiful pure tasteful voice to the best of her ability. But other than that, there’s not much reason to listen to this album, because all that purity and taste gets boring after a while.