Years ago, back in the '40s and '50s, they were called "canaries." Female jazz singers were widely viewed as more ornament than musician. They stood in front of the band, glamorous in form-fitting gowns, chirping maudlin lyrics of love. But a closer listen to such canaries as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington reveals that these singers weren't just entertaining eye candy. What each woman did with melody, time and rhythm was just as influential as what Miles Davis played on his trumpet, as what Charlie Parker blew through his sax.
Today's top female jazz vocalists -- Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves, Diana Krall -- are not chirping. They're exploring the natural depth of their instrument (Wilson), the expansiveness (Reeves), the sultry allure (Krall). Nnenna Freelon is one of the most engaging interpreters working in jazz these days. Her voice -- warm and crystalline -- is always well-controlled, her range wide. She dives into lyrics -- sometimes eschewing the melody -- to unearth the sorrow, the joy, the poignancy, the tenderness.
"I grew up singing in the church and listening to my father's jazz collection," says Freelon, who's calling from her North Carolina home, "so that imprint has always been on me."
The singer will perform tonight with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at a gala evening for the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. Freelon's husband, Phil, designed the new building.
Her new and eighth album, the shimmering Live, was recorded over two nights in February at Washington's Kennedy Center.
"In the studio, you hope that some of who you are comes through," Freelon says. "You hope the songs you select are right. In the live element, everything is immediate. I came up as a live artist, so I feel very much myself on stage."
Since releasing her self-titled debut in '92, Freelon has been on many critics' radar. But it was only after she put out her sophomore set, 1993's Heritage, that they started to like her. The artist was initially dismissed as a Sarah Vaughan imitator. Her debut was a string-heavy affair full of mothball standards ("Skylark," "Angel Eyes," "Yesterdays") to which Freelon added few fresh ideas. But on subsequent releases -- 1994's Listen, 1996's Shaking Free and her 1998 masterpiece Maiden Voyage -- she smartly and fluidly showcased her own style -- an eclectic, classy, soulful approach slightly reminiscent of one of her idols, Nancy Wilson.
"I ran into Nancy Wilson at the airport once in Atlanta," the Mississippi native recalls, her voice animated. "She's been in this game since -- goodness, cat was a kitten. And there she was, sitting there just as fine as she wanna be. I look at her with so much admiration because she has had such a long career, which is what I want."
Before she was recording and playing gigs around the world, Freelon led a pretty normal life. She was married with three children, and she worked in health care services in Durham, N.C. But the desire to be on stage wouldn't let her rest. So with her family's support, Freelon started her career in earnest, singing at jam sessions, wherever she could play.
"My children were raised up as I was raising my music," says Freelon, who doesn't divulge her age and whose children are now in their early 20s. "They saw mama stumble and fall and learn along the way. We tell our children to follow their dreams. Mine saw me do it. They were raised on theater seats."
Once the artist started making albums, her tour schedule increased. (She plays at least 100 shows a year.) And Grammy nominations abounded. Her repertoire has grown to include show tunes -- which she often imbues with such unlikely shades as reggae and Latin percussion -- blues numbers, folk ballads, Motown standards and original songs. Live follows last year's Tales of Wonder, an immaculate, acclaimed tribute to Stevie Wonder.
"Jazz needs to open up a little more," Freelon says. "We've gotten too comfortable with being so hip. The charge on jazz artists is to re-interpret our environment, to open up the possibilities. Now, I grew up on the standards and Ella and Sarah, but I also love the music of my generation: the ladies of Labelle, Earth, Wind & Fire, Minnie Riperton, Chaka Khan. I don't look at just one genre when I select the songs I sing. It has a lot to do with my own values and morals, the songs I choose to sing."
On Live, which Freelon produced, she gives a generous sampling of her style range -- a gospel-blues take on Harold Arlen's "If I Only Had a Brain," an introspective rendition of Smokey Robinson's "The Tears of a Clown."
"This is a record that was 10 years in the making," Freelon says. "Everything I've learned as a recording artist is on the live record."
And you can bet she knows much more than how to stand under a spotlight.
Tonight's gala evening at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (1212 Cathedral St.) begins at 8 p.m., with a pre-gala reception at 6:30 p.m. It also features Bill Cosby, James Earl Jones and Montel Williams. Ticket prices start at $75 and can be purchased from the BSO box office at 410-783-8000. For more information, visit www.africanamericanculture.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun