Bending Melodies into Unorthodox Shapes


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Heading into her encore at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola on Tuesday night, Nnenna Freelon gave her audience the illusion of a choice. “Are you guys feeling frisky or sentimental?" she asked. Frisky, came the reply. Well, all right, then: the band struck up a light-funk groove, and Ms. Freelon plunged into one last song, parsing lyrics with syncopation. “Dreeeaam," she sang, “beside me. In-the-mid-night-glow. The lamp. Is low."

She was working with “The Lamp Is Low," a songbook standard of murmuring ardor, and the opening track of her new album, Homefree (Concord). Here as on the album it suggested a showpiece, scaled for attention-grabbing. Its message was sentimental but its delivery frisky, so that the general mood fell somewhere in between. Ms. Freelon was on firm footing there, projecting clearly, hitting her notes and her mark.

A jazz singer of unstinting vivacity, Ms. Freelon draws on some of the sturdier pillars of her craft--Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, even Lena Horne, to whom she dedicated a brief version of “Stormy Weather"--without resorting to outright emulation. (Her most transparent debt is to Vaughan, in the caprice of her phrasing; she also knows how to borrow the dryly suggestive intonation of Billie Holiday.) She has a strong, supple voice, and she controls it well, often stretching out a note and slowly intensifying its effect, adding tension or vibrato, before clipping it off at the end.

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