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Charlotte Amalie
Wednesday, July 17, 2024


April 3, 2002 – Nnenna Freelon is a jazz singer, and that's what her brunch concert on Sunday afternoon — note, that's afternoon, not evening — in Tillett Gardens is all about. But her artistry is also about journeys of the heart and the soul.
She's won the Billie Holiday Award from France's Academie du Jazz and the Eubie Blake Award from New York's Cultural Crossroads. She's been nominated for two Soul Train "Lady of Soul" awards and for five Grammy's — two last year for her album "Soulcall" and her track on it of the oldie "Button Up Your Overcoat" with some new hip-hop influence. ("I am so in favor of any fresh way of looking at the world," she says. "You can't always be looking in the rear-view mirror.")
She has performed at the Society of Singers "Ella Awards," the Stephen Sondheim tribute at Carnegie Hall, "Divas Simply Singing" fund-raisers for AIDS charities, Variety — The Children's Charity, on the 2001 Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, and at the 2001 Grammy Awards show. A year and a half ago, she made her film debut — as herself, crooning a romantic tune to Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt in "What Women Want."
Recently, she has been hard at work on her new CD coming out in June. Titled "Tales of Wonder," it's a tribute to Stevie Wonder, whose work she has included on all of her previous albums. It's a project she is "very excited about," she says.
A Los Angeles Times reviewer wrote that Freelon "need not be heralded as the next Sarah or the next anyone. She is simply the now Nnenna, for whom comparison is no longer necessary."
Freelon has been singing publicly since she made her solo debut in church with "Amazing Grace" at the age of 7 — when the applause and "Amen!" responses persuaded her on the spot that "I want more of that!" (as she says with a grin). But when it came time to prepare for a career, she got her college degree in health care administration and worked for a few years in that field before surrendering to her muse.
Her first album, in 1992, titled simply "Nnenna Freelon," brought her first Grammy nomination, for "Stella by Starlight." After that came "Heritage" in 1993, "Listen" in 1994, "Shaking Free" in 1996 (Grammy nomination No. 3), "Maiden Voyage" in 1998 and "Soulcall" in 2001. The "Who's Who" of talent she has worked with includes Billy Taylor, Ellis Marsalis, Dianne Reeves, Ray Charles, Al Jarreau, Joe Beck and Kirk Whalum.
Leaving the health-care field didn't mean abandoning her caring side. In addition to performing, teaching, writing, arranging and recording music, she serves as spokeswoman for the National Association of Partners in Education, an umbrella organization for some seven million people across the nation who volunteer in more than 400,000 community-school partnering programs in support of arts education.
On the "Soulcall" album is a pop-gospel song that she wrote and performs with Sounds of Blackness that's called "One Child at a Time." It has become the anthem for Partners in Education and its philosophy that "each and every one of us can make a difference — one child at a time."
"My own childhood was magical, full of curiosity, creativity and a sense of safety, a time for me to discover who I am," she says. "So many children don't have that kind of childhood. I don't have a lot of resources, but I do have a mind, I do have a voice, I do have an audience. And I can draw attention to things that are important."
There has never been an afternoon Arts Alive concert until now, but for this final performance of the 15th season, the board decided to jazz things up in more ways than one. As producer Rhoda Tillett notes, "Jazz brunches are very popular in many big cities — starting with New Orleans. So, we thought we would try it as the grand finale for what's been a season of incredibly outstanding concerts."
She notes that it's a unique opportunity for local jazz performers who have night-time gigs and students who have school-night curfews to enjoy the concert by an artist "who is not just a wonderful entertainer but also a wonderful person."
The three-course brunch will offer a choice of eggs Benedict, eggs Florentine, banana-nut French toast, smoked pineapple-cured ham, and grouper over mixed greens as entrees, with tiramisu as a dessert.
For anyone anxious about the hot, bright rays of the tropical sun on a Sunday afternoon, Tillett says not to worry. There will be a tent over the fountain area, a canopy extending from the restaurant terrace to the stage, and umbrellas atop tables at the sides.
Among those looking forward to Freelon's appearance is another alumna of the artist's alma mater, Simmons College in Boston. Attorney Veronica Handy says there are several other Simmons graduates on island, too, and that they probably all received the same mailing she did "a year or so ago," when Freelon did a fund-raiser concert for the school's alumnae association.
Freelon sometimes tours with her four-piece band, but for her Virgin Islands concerts she's appearing with one band member with whom she often performs as a duo — pianist Takana Miyamoto, a graduate of the Berklee College of Music who also has worked with Roy Hargrove, Joe Lovano and Christian McBride. This will be their first visit to the Virgin Islands.
She might or might not include "Button Up Your Overcoat" on tropical St. Thomas. "I usually make my choices about repertoire once I arrive and feel the vibe," she explains.
Oh, if you were wondering: Freelon's first name, pronounced "Nina," is what her mother named her. It is a West African word meaning "first-born daughter, which I am," she says.
Concert information
Sunday's brunch concert begins at 2 p.m. in Tillett Gardens The optional brunch, with concert seating at tables, will be served from noon in The Pub, the arts complex restaurant. Concert tickets are $25; brunch is an additional $30 plus bar tab and tip. Concert seating is cabaret style, with light menu and bar service available throughout the afternoon. For reservations — required for brunch and recommended for just the concert — call 775-1920 or e-mail to Arts Alive.
Nnenna Freelon also will perform Friday night in Cruz Bay at the St. John School of the Arts. For information, call 779-4322 or 776-6777.

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