It’s her eleventh album to date and her first since “Homefree” came out back in 2010. Nnenna Freelon sounds as fresh and graceful, jazzy and soulful as ever and in most cases on her beautiful new disc, even better than ever before. Harking back to her “Listen” (1994), “Shaking Free” (1996) or “Soulcall” (2000) days when she released collections of soul classics mixed in with standards and originals, usually with style and imagination and a little bit of extravagance, here she is in 2021 presenting an album of love and hope, having lost her husband for 40+ years only recently to ALS.
His voice can be heard on her most intimate, striking, viscerally beautiful track here, “Time Traveler”, the title for her album which just came out on Origin Records. It’s a reminder to hold on to your loved ones each and every day. You never know when it’s the last one. But there is always the chance to “meet me there” in the future, a phrase which she varies here in both effervescent, and very tender, almost dark modes. The other original, “Just You”, is a slow and sweet ballad, augmented with churchy organ backups by Brandon McCune and soft drum work by E.J. Strickland. Nnenna’s voice shines brightly, even when she only whispers or sighs. Her lower register is amazing.
The album opens with Burt Bacharach‘s “I Say A Little Prayer”, which she recorded for her 2000 “Soulcall” album first. Here, it’s with a lot more drama, urgency, soul and blues and much slower than on her first try. There are some Etta Jones moments on this one and her prolonged “run” in “I run for the bus dear” speaks volumes. I also like the backing vocals by Trineice Robinson-Martin. Her Marvin Gaye medley starts absolutely gorgeous with “If This World Were MIne” and electric piano by Miki Hayama and guitar by Keith Ganz before Gerald Veasley on bass and Adonis Rose on drums chime in. Simply wonderful. And her segue into “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” happens so inconspicuously that you almost don’t notice it. She ends her tribute with an upbeat “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. The same sweet and tender soul mood continues on “Betcha By Golly Wow”, the Thom Bell/Linda Creed classic where Nnenna crisply entangles you right away with just the very first word on “there’s a spark of magic in your eyes”. Great sax accompaniment by Kirk Whalum here. Another Bell/Creed standard, “You Make Me Feel Brand New”, is done extremely stripped down with just Nnenna and Keith on guitar. It’s a perfect example for ample storytelling.
Nnenna also tackles Jim Croce‘s 1972 anthem “Time In A Bottle” and shows off her versatility once again. We also get a trio of standards from the Great American Songbook with “Moon River” coming across with a bit of too much restraint, “Time After TIme” with appropriate elegance, and “Come Rain Or Come Shine” where she excels on a pretty bluesy, preachy interpretation, with her voice soaring into atmospheres which not really a lot of other singers are able to reach.