The Jazz.com Blog
September 10, 2009 · 0 comments
Pairing classical soprano Harolyn Blackwell and jazz singer Nnenna Freelon in a program of Duke Ellington songs brought out, among other things, the enduring power of his music, which worked equally well with both singers. Mark Garson's arrangements for three horns (sax, trumpet, trombone), string quartet, piano bass, and drums and tried out some unusual ideas. Such as—"Caravan" as a ballad fugue for strings over a swing tempo, and subtly quoting "Maiden Voyage" behind sections of "In a Sentimental Mood." Scoring "A Train” as a slow, attenuated vocalise worked because it laid bare and showed off the beauty of the line. Superimposing Rachmaninoff's Vocalise in C# minor over "Beginning to See the Light" was perhaps a less than successful experiment; playing these songs together demonstrated their incompatibility rather than producing a meaningful hybrid.
The centerpiece was the vocals, the format usually swing and jazz ballads for Nnenna Freelon, and lyrical treatment with a few uptempo numbers for Harolyn Blackwell. Blackwell had fun with an occasional venture into a genre so different from her classical training and predilection, in swing treatments of songs like "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," although the high point of her performance was an almost elegiac rendition of "(In My) Solitude" for voice and solo piano. Often, Blackwell would begin a tune with a slow, lyrical arrangement over strings, as with "I Let A Song Go Out of My Heart," then the band would switch into a swing arrangement behind Nneena Freelon. "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" followed the same formula, although Freelon began it in 3/4.
With poise and star quality, Nneena Freelon sank her teeth into the lyric and emotional content of the jazz ballads and slow tempo songs she sang to Mark Garson's pungent reharmonizations. She changed the nonchalantly sexist lyric of a slow "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me" into a firm belief in unchanging and committed love, and, undulating up and down half steps, she glided through rich, sexy phrasing of "In A Sentimental Mood" and “Prelude to a Kiss." In contrast, her scat on the swing was undeveloped, almost amateurish. One wonders if singers listen to the horn players behind them anymore.
The band finished off with an encore of "C Jam Blues," featuring some fine solo work on French horn by Jeff Stockham, bringing this unconventional salute to the Duke to a close.
This blog entry posted by Roanna Forman. For links to the rest of Forman’s coverage of the festival, click here.