Jazz Album of the Week: Vocalist Nnenna Freelon Remembers Late Husband Through Music They Shared
In 2019, Grammy-nominated vocalist Nnenna Freelon lost her husband Phil, the man she called her soul mate, after a years-long battle with ALS. They'd been married for 40 years. Phil was a renowned architect and had been one of the lead executives at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. They shared a love of music— of jazz, soul, and R&B. Of The Sound of Philadelphia, of Thom Bell and Linda Creed, of Sonny and Cher, of Bacharach and David, Arlen and Mercer, Styne and Cahn.
On Time Traveler, Freelon's first studio album in over a decade, the vocalist has found a space into which to pour her immense grief. And what comes out on the other side, to the listener, is something bittersweet—mournful, at times, but also deeply appreciative of the music that was the soundtrack to the life they built.
Philly audiences of a certain age will love the arrangements of a pair of hits from The Stylistics, "Betcha By Golly Wow" and "You Make Me Feel Brand New." On the former, just a few notes from Miki Hayama's Fender Rhodes electric piano are all that's necessary to signal a return to the early '70s and the release of The Stylistics self-titled debut. Kirk Whalum's soulful tenor sax playing reminds me of how Grover Washington, Jr. used to accompany vocalists; he frames Freelon beautifully and amplifies the palpable emotion she brings to the tune. And that delightful garnish of flute you're hearing over the top—that's Whalum, too.
The latter, another chart-topper written by Bell and Creed, gets a pared-down arrangement here courtesy of guitarist Keith Ganz, who joins Freelon on his acoustic for a stirring tribute to the singer's late husband that feels as cathartic as it does tearful.
A forceful yet dignified take on Bacharach and David's "I Say a Little Prayer" opens the record. Brandon McCune on Hammond organ and Trineice Robinson-Martin lend the arrangement an authentically churchy feel, and it's not a stretch to call Freelon's assertive delivery a testimony of sorts. When Freelon sings that she and her love will be "together forever," she does so with such conviction that you might rethink your stance on the supernatural or the hereafter. I, for one, am moved to take Freelon's word for it.
Whether you love or just like the "Marvin Medley"— consisting of excerpts from Gaye's "If This World Were Mine," "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing," and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"— will depend upon how much of a strict originalist you are when it comes to Gaye's catalogue. Some of the liberties taken may be jarring, especially if you're looking for an apples-to-apples reproduction. I personally enjoyed the arrangements by Philly's Gerald Veasley, who plays bass here, as well as on the down-record rendition of Styne and Cahn's "Time after Time." The take on "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" is especially fun, with Hayama's bursts on synthesizer giving this remake a jolt of jam-inspired electricity.
There's a lot of music here. All of it good, some of it great. But you, the jazz sophisticate, are busy, and it's tempting to skip past yet another rendition of "Moon River." Resist that temptation in this case. Freelon's in really great voice here, giving a show-stopping performance, accompanied gorgeously by Hayama on acoustic piano.
Perhaps the most interesting selection here, though, is Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle." It's the one that, superficially, doesn't belong with the others, but it's truly transformed here by Hayama's percussive, multi-layered arrangement. Where Croce's original is wistful, melancholic, and ultimately passive, this take makes you believe Freelon is prepared to do all that's necessary to travel back (or forward) through time to reunite with her loved one(s).
And it's the one tune here that really illustrates what Freelon told NPR's Mandalit Del Barco in late May. "Music is like a time traveler, taking you to the past," Freelon said. "You can exist, like in a science fiction movie, in the past and in the present."