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Freelon not afraid to voice individuality

Count on Cambridge native Nnenna Freelon singing some music associated with Billie Holiday when she returns home for two sets at Scullers Thursday. But you can bet she'll be putting her own spin on the material.

That was the vocalist's approach on her latest CD, ``Blueprint of a Lady -- Sketches of Billie Holiday," which recently earned Freelon her sixth Grammy nomination. (Concord Records label mate Dianne Reeves and ``Good Night, and Good Luck" wound up winning for best jazz vocal album.)

``What she did, which I just think is so incredibly intelligent and just brave, is she used what she had," Freelon says of Holiday, from her home in Durham, N.C., classical music wafting softly in the background. ``Instead of blooming outward, trying to develop the voice into something that other people would say, `Oh wow, that's great.' She moved inward, and she plucked those delicate strings in between the notes. She explored nuance, she explored the emotional realm of music, and we're all the better for it -- because there's no one like her in terms of emotional range."

Freelon's more powerful sound is much more in line with conventional notions of a great voice, and her own emotional approach to such standards as ``All of Me" and ``I Didn't Know What Time It Was" is quite different from Holiday's. But that, says Freelon, is as it should be.

``Being yourself is really the only option, if you're an artist," she says. ``All along I wanted to go to the same well that she went to: a well marked `American Songbook, popular songs.' I did not want to go any further with that than looking at the same material."

That Freelon's sensibility would differ from Holiday's is no surprise. Holiday lived a famously troubled life, marred by drug addiction and abusive men. Freelon's life has been far happier. She moved to Durham to begin a career in hospital administration after graduating from Simmons College. She met her husband, architect Phil Freelon, in Durham and raised three children there -- the youngest of whom, she notes, graduated last month from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Her elder two are in graduate school in Washington state and Boston.)

Freelon began singing jazz in the 1980s, performing around Durham and coming back to Massachusetts for the annual Jazz in July program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where she studied with Dr. Billy Taylor and Yusef Lateef. She was in her late 30s when she made her debut CD for Columbia Records in the early '90s. Her career caught fire with her jump soon after to Concord.

But Freelon's earlier public singing took place as a child back in Cambridge, at Union Baptist Church and at St. Paul AME. In fact, she taps into her gospel background on the Holiday tribute via a duet version of the spiritual ``Balm in Gilead" with her pianist, Brandon McCune .

There's a definite link between jazz and gospel, Freelon says. ``I think the thing that really ties it together is the improvisational nature of the music. Less the style, but more the idea that you proclaim your individuality in a group setting. That's all jazz is about, really."

McCune, who directs music at two New Jersey churches in addition to playing jazz, agrees.

``The thing that I guess would connect them," he says, ``is that they are collective improvisation where there's a lot of listening going on. [You're] not only playing or singing your part, but you're listening to how it works in conjunction to how other people are improvising with their parts, around whatever the theme of the song is, or the feeling or the emotion."

Freelon has also maintained ties to her hospital-work roots as her jazz career has flourished. Her Babysong workshops, which she launched at Duke University Medical Center in 1990, teach young mothers and healthcare providers the importance of the human voice for healing and nurturing. She particularly stresses the importance of parents singing to small children to enhance brain development.

Here, too, the individuality of each singer's sound is crucial.

``I've found that a lot of people are very shy about using their voices," Freelon explains. ``People think, `Oh well, it's easy for you to sing. You have a great voice.' But the point is, the babies are not critics. And the voices that they find most appealing are the ones that are most familiar -- so that's mom's voice, dad's voice, or whoever's voice they've been hearing."

Nnenna Freelon performs at 8 and 10 p.m. Thursday at Scullers. Tickets $27. Call 617-562-4111 or visit

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