Freelon and Brown to perform music from new CD

Dec. 21, 2012 @ 09:49 AM

Vocalist Nnenna Freelon and bass player John Brown have a musical association that goes back a good 20 years. Brown was in Freelon’s first touring band, before he became the jazz studies director at Duke University. Through recordings and tours, Freelon and Brown have established separate bodies of work that are heard nationally and internationally.
In 2011, the White House asked them to perform at the Asia Pacific Economic Summit. As they were returning on the plane, they began talking about different musical projects, and their new Christmas album “sort of blossomed from there,” Freelon said.
Today, Freelon and the John Brown Big Band will perform music from the recording at the Carolina Theatre. Freelon has billed the concert “a live Christmas present to the Triangle.” 
Arranging Christmas music is “sacred cow territory,” Freelon said during a recent lunch at Hummingbird Bakery in Durham. She and bandleader Brown were discussing their new recording of Christmas songs and today’s concert.
“I’m known as a singer who takes a non-standard approach to the standards,” Freelon, an arranger in her own right, said of her recording output, which includes her tributes and arrangements of songs of Stevie Wonder and Billie Holiday. On their Christmas album, Freelon and Brown apply that philosophy to holiday standards, offering many surprises while keeping the tunes recognizable.
The challenge in working with Christmas music, Brown said, was “finding a way to honor the melodies and not take away the meaning of the songs. … The feel changes, that’s OK, but the melody remains intact.”
Jerald Shynett’s arrangement of Franz Gruber’s “Silent Night is one example. Shynett (one of several arrangers credited on this CD) uses the opening rhythm to the Miles Davis classic “All Blues” in the first bars, adding a blues and gospel feel to this traditional tune. Because people know these tunes, revising them comes with some artistic risk, Freelon said. The challenge is to give the listener a different experience of the song, “but at the same time respect the tradition.” The skillful ensemble and Shynett’s writing are important to the “Silent Night” arrangement, she said. “That particular arrangement is so solid.”
Freelon and Brown chose the 10 tunes from a long list of Christmas classics. Freelon said she did research into previous jazz interpretations of Christmas music. The song “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is “one of those songs that resonates in my memory,” she said. She recalled hearing Mahalia Jackson sing the song on a recording her parents would play at Christmastime. “When that needle went down on that LP, we knew it was time for Christmas,” Freelon said.
The collection includes a song that is not specifically a Christmas tune, Duke Ellington’s “I Like the Sunrise.” “That’s her stroke of genius,” Brown said of Freelon’s selection of the tune. The song expresses the sense of expectation and hope that comes with Christmas, that “waiting to exhale on Christmas Eve” moment, Freelon said. The lyrics are “I like the sunrise/’Cause it brings a new day/ I like the new day/It brings new hope they say.”
The album also has an arrangement of several traditional hymns titled “Spiritual Medley,” a duet of Brown and Freelon singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and a New Orleans style upbeat arrangement of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
The album is Brown’s first experience doing a vocal record, he said. “We built things from the voice down,” he said. “The goal was to achieve what was going to be a support for her,” he said of Freelon.
The ensemble and rapport of the musicians make the record work, Freelon said. When the nuances and emphasis on some tunes would change, like going into a gospel feel, the band easily picked up on it, she said. “You could get [good] interplay because we all had knowledge of the same worlds,” Freelon said. “When you bring individual human beings and spirits in one environment … you hope they’re standing on common ground, and that’s exactly what happened.”

Go and Do
WHAT: Nnenna Freelon and the John Brown Big Band, performing music from their new Christmas recording
WHEN: Dec. 21, 8 p.m.
WHERE: The Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham
ADMISSION: Tickets start at $24. To purchase, call 919-560-3030 or visit