Interview With Nnenna Freelon

tweety stuff @ronanfromcork

A shorter version of this text was first published in The Evening Echo [Cork] on 2018-10-18, text underneath photo.


TID - Echo - Nnenna Freelon

Only embarking on a professional singing career after she had raised her children, Nnenna Freelon quickly became a world renowned singer, teacher and arranger, with six of her albums receiving Grammy nominations. She has also won several other jazz awards including a very notable one at the start of her career, “the Billie Holiday award was given to me early in my career when I released my first record in 1992, my understanding is that they looked for emerging voices and singers. That really gave me a great boost of confidence and support by acknowledging my voice and promise. That was me standing on the shoulders of Billie Holiday, someone who was a self taught singer but at the end of the day she sort of defined Jazz singing. There had been Blues singing and Folk singing before her, but arguably she and Louis Armstrong were the grandmother and grandfather of the genre we call Jazz singing.”

The idea of standing on her ‘Billie Holiday’s shoulders’ is central to how Nnenna views how Jazz music works, “Jazz is a music of collaboration really, an individual might think they are creating all by oneself, but that’s so rare. Most of us stand on the shoulders of others or borrow, adjust and change ideas. We all live in this world of influences that include Jazz, Classical and Folkloric music, and things we learned as kid, it’s all in there – and if we are wise, we dig into that well.”

She credits her father with introducing her to Jazz but is very aware of not getting too totalitarian about what counts as Jazz music, “that was the music by father loved – from him I heard people like Sarah Vaughan and big band music, I don’t know if I’d have been attracted to that music if wasn’t for him in my life. I think sometimes people start to think of Jazz as something that is only legitimate if it’s Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk – and if it’s not that it’s not ‘Jazz’ – but that’s a very narrow view.”

Instead of a particular sound, Nnenna views playing and singing Jazz as mindset, “improvisation is the thing that links the music together, if you have the ability to create music in the moment and keep it in that moment, that satisfies me as Jazz – as opposed to music that is written down and the effort is put in to perform it exactly as written, that is for me is not Jazz. Duke Ellington had a great explanation for music, “there are only two types of music – the good kind and everything else!”

Nnenna’s concert in Cork will be her second time playing the festival, “It’s been many many years since I was at the Cork Jazz festival, it was 2001 – I was just a baby! This time I will be accompanied by piano, acoustic bass and drums – it’s a wonderful group, one I’ve worked with many times. We are looking forward to it so much. We do have a broad repertoire – but the music we will be playing at this particular concert in The Everyman will largely be standards from the great American Songbook, but re-imagined. Taking songs that have lasted a long long time and looking at them with a different lens, you can do that with the great songs.”

She has just two criteria to consider before adding a song to her repertoire, how it sounds to her and how she connects to it, “I’m simply attracted to beautiful melodies, things that have a strong melodic form – people see me go from the songs of Stevie Wonder to the Duke Ellington – I go where the melody goes! I think I’m a storyteller, I love stories – inside of songs I look for a story, even when I’m singing a 32 bar song I’m performing a 5 to 7 minute play. There’s a beginning, an apex, and an end told in a dramatic way, and underpinning it all is a story. I always tell my students, that if you don’t have a story to tell – and it doesn’t have the be the one the lyricist wrote, it can be one of your own making, that is the improvisational nature of jazz – dig in your own personal experiences, those of others or into your own soul as a human being and you bring that to the audience. Then the audience takes what you’ve expressed and make their own story from it, it just continues to expand like ripples in a pond, it’s really magical.”

On that note, she drew on a very specific example to explain this, “One woman wrote me a beautiful letter, that I still keep in my office, some years ago she was recovering from Breast Cancer surgery, so she was going into for her chemo and she used the music from my record called Soul Call, which I released in 2000, and played that as she had her treatment and she really felt like it helped in her healing. That hadn’t been my intent when I made that record, but how grateful am I that it had that effect for her, so there’s the story the lyricist wrote, the story that I had with the song and the story that particular listener had with the song and it goes on and on. That’s why I’m so glad I can be an artist and singer, that’s the reason right there.”

Finally Nnenna reflected on Aretha Franklin, another great American vocalist who has passed away, “The Queen of Soul is exactly who she was, and she was also a friend,
The day she died a group of us got together, and we talked about the many ways she affected us, musically, spiritually, socially. We did what you do, we span a few records, raised a toast, quite a few toasts, to this great spirit and that we were blessed to be alive when she was. What an amazing talent she was, I heard some say once ‘oh there are black American voices like hers in every church in America’, that is absolutely not true! She was a one in a generation voice and when you look at the depth and breadth of her material, she stuck her fingers into Pop stuff, Jazz stuff, classical – she had a voice that could just move you. All hail the Queen!”


Nnenna Freelon Trio & Donny McCaslin Group play The Everyman Theatre on Sunday 28 October at 2.30pm. Tickets available at



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