A Singer's Tribute to Lena Horne, Her Regal and Daunting Role Model

Nnenna Freelon
When the jazz singer Nnenna Freelon was a little girl, she recalled in her show, “Lena: A Lovesome Thing," on Wednesday evening at Feinstein's at Loews Regency, Lena Horne was “held up as the standard of beauty and pride."

.Ms. Freelon doesn't sound much like Horne except in passing phrases that convey the attitude of regal hauteur that was a Horne trademark. Her voice is lighter, her style much jazzier and more experimental. But you could still hear the influence; this was no idle tribute.

Again and again Ms. Freelon, who looks two decades younger than her 56 years, reiterated how crucial and daunting a role model Horne was for her. The theme of the show is really her quest for self-esteem with the image of Horne as inspirational lodestar.

Ms. Freelon, who recently released the album “Homefree" (Concord), is a singer of many parts that don't always mesh. But when they do, your admiration for her sophisticated technique turns into something deeper as she conveys the private associations of a song. That technique is a patchwork of influences, of which Ella Fitzgerald's scat is one of the most prominent. Another of her voices is a less emphatic, tonally thinner echo of Sarah Vaughan.

As for the kind of high drama Horne could conjure to devastating effect, Ms. Freelon uses her hands, which are continually weaving patterns, to do much of the work, although her version of “Stormy Weather" had ample thunder and lightning.

As is usually the case with jazz singing, the fewer frills the better. And when Ms. Freelon and her excellent trio (Brandon McCune on piano, Wayne Batchelor on bass and Adonis Rose on drums) performed a number in which the artifice evaporated, you felt a powerful one-to-one connection.

She and the group recast “I Feel Pretty" as a minor-key jazz swinger revolving around the phrase “that I hardly can believe I'm real." As her character studies her reflection in a mirror you think of Ms. Freelon, in the early throes of self-invention, fiercely determined to be a glamorous, in-charge woman like Horne.

Even more arresting was a very slow, intense “Moon River," which transformed this folksy expression of wistful nostalgia into the vow of an artist gazing at the moon's reflection in the water to someday be “crossing you in style." Out of such dreams, singing careers take shape.

“Lena: A Lovesome Thing" continues through Saturday at Feinstein's at Loews Regency, 540 Park Avenue, at 61st Street; (212) 339-4095.

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