Making her own kind of Wonder

Nnenna Freelon

Posted: Friday, May 16, 2003

Five-time Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon grew up with Stevie Wonder. She fell in and out of love for the first time to "My Cherie Amour." She gave birth to her first child a few months after "Hotter Than July" came out in 1980.

But when Freelon started working on her tribute to the soul singer, 2002's "Tales of Wonder," she still had one of the most difficult artistic challenges a musician can face.

How do you take a song from an artist who inspired you to make music, and let yourself twist it, mold it, to make it your own?

"His stamp was so indelible on so many of those songs," said Freelon, who plays the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium at 8 p.m. Friday, May 23, as part of the 17th Annual Juneau Jazz & Classics festival.

"It's not like I had seven tunes to choose from," she said. "I had quite a few. But many of them, frankly, were not for me. I couldn't rethink it. I couldn't imagine it without him. It's like he created the safe and kept the keys."

She ended up with 12 songs, many of which you'll recognize whether or not you're a Wonder fan. "My Cherie Amour" is there. So is "Superstition." "Tears of a Clown" shows up, though Wonder originally wrote it as an instrumental. Smokey Robinson added lyrics and carried it to the top of the Billboard charts in 1970.

"Another Star," from one of Wonder's true master works, "Songs in the Key of Life," is a poignant, and perhaps overlooked, choice.

And then - speaking of the safe and its keys - there's "Until You Come Back To Me," written by Wonder and turned into a hit by Aretha Franklin in 1974.

Freelon had the courage to wipe away Wonder's leapfrog-cadence from the chorus. Her version sounds like a smoky, straightforward lounge - a neon stop for an honest talk.

"Aretha put her big foot in it," Freelon said. "It is her. And I considered not doing that one, because it was so closely identified with someone I admire and love."

"I looked at the lyrics and thought about it," she said. "And I realized that people all over the planet get on the phone and have that same basic conversation: 'I tried to talk to him; I paged him; he is not getting back to me; I am going over to his house.' It was such a regular story. The effort was to de-pop-ize it and make it into a blues song, to make it into a girlfriend's conversation."

Freelon has never been to Alaska before. She's still touring for "Tales of Wonder" and playing the great jazz festivals of the world. Her stop here includes a residency sponsored by the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council. She will conduct workshops and speak with Juneau-Douglas High School students.

Freelon has been nominated for five Grammy awards, two for "Soulcall," the 2000 record that sent her career flying. She sang at the 43rd Annual Grammy Awards in 2001 and appeared with Mel Gibson in the movie "What Women Want" later that year. dubbed her, "Smart as Oprah, sassy as Sarah Vaughan, striking as Phylicia Rashad and as refreshingly self-aware as only a true risk-taker can be."

Her next record, tentatively titled "Nnenna Freelon Live," includes material from four shows at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and comes out in September.

"For me it was just a very freeing experience," Freelon said. "Like for anybody, live performance is like walking on a tightrope. There are nights where you sing to the gods and others where you're a regular schlepping along. I felt pushed by the energy of the audience, so hopefully that came through."

Freelon started her career as a live artist at clubs in the Southeast. She was already a successful hospital administrator, wife and mother of three in Durham, N.C., but she wanted to sing. She also knew what she wanted to sing - jazz, rhythm and blues, anything with a shelf life.

"A lot of what I'm hearing in contemporary music doesn't feed me," Freelon said. "My mind, my brain, my heart is hungry. Once I've heard the three chords and the lyric, I'm bored. We're not talking about Carole King, Joni Mitchell - you can still put on those records and derive some pleasure from then 30 years later."

Freelon signed with Columbia Records in 1990 and released "Nnenna Freelon" in 1992. A year later she released "Heritage," an album of standards. Looking back, Freelon says she wasn't quite ready to put out an album of other people's songs.

"Tales of Wonder" is Freelon's seventh album. And though she's been influenced by many of the greats - Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Laura Nyro and Dinah Washington, just to name a few - she wanted a balanced homage for Wonder.

"He was one of the first persons of his stature to speak out against apartheid," she said. "He's always used his lyrics to address the little person, the black one, the brown one, the poor one, the disenfranchised one. He invented world music before there was a term for it. He was also one of the first to use synthesized sounds in a big way. He broke all the rules about how to write a pop song and they're still mega-hits."

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