The lady sings

Nnenna Freelon pays tribute to Billie Holiday

Nnenna Freelon

After helpmating her architect husband, raising three high-achievement children, and launching her own celebrated career in jazz, Nnenna Freelon has thrown herself into a tribute to a singer with a far less idyllic story.

Freelon is reluctant to specify just how many years she's outlived the subject of her recent recording, Blueprint of a Lady: Sketches of Billie Holiday (Holiday died in 1959 at age 44, after years of mistreatment by herself and others). But Freelon, who'll sing from the album at the Ferst Center on Saturday, is forthright in her admiration for what Holiday was able to accomplish within her short time.

Even after a full day of rehearsal in New York City with dancer Ronald K. Brown for a stage show linked to the album, Freelon is eager to chat by phone about Holiday's virtues, too often overshadowed by her renowned vices and victimization. "We might not agree on 'what is a jazz singer.' You get 5 million answers about what that is," Freelon says. "But everyone does agree that she is 'it.' So I owe her that; that she brought beauty and grace and sensuality and political consciousness to this realm that I can freely touch on and feed on in my own art."

Unlike Holiday, born in Baltimore to a 13-year-old mother who later abandoned her, Freelon was raised by a supportive, church-going family in Cambridge, Mass. On their advice, she put her demonstrable musical gifts on hold and embarked on a career in public health, which brought her to Durham, N.C., and an encounter with her husband-to-be, Philip Freelon.

Holiday had started making money from music at age 15, after being jailed for prostitution, and first recorded three years later. Freelon's debut summons to Columbia Records came by phone in her 30s, while she was frying chicken for her three kids.

Of course, Freelon had by that time been rekindling her childhood love of music, visiting clubs in Raleigh and Chapel Hill and auditing the LPs of jazz vocalists lent her by a sympathetic Durham record store owner. "Sarah Vaughan was one of my role models," says Freelon. "And Ella Fitzgerald, a lot of people compared my voice and hers — probably because the vibrato was similar."

As for Holiday, "She's the kind of person who, when I first heard her, it took me a moment to really appreciate what she was saying. I loved the voice, but there were times when the music would make me feel so strongly that I would have to take it in small doses."

Recording and touring through the 1990s, Freelon evolved from a strong Vaughan imprint to a sound of her own — warm, saucy, and engaging. As both her musicianship and her songwriting matured, she found herself better able to appreciate those talents in Holiday.

"I think she and I are like kindred spirits in the writing world, in that she tends to write about personal experiences," says Freelon. Jazz-wise, she's perhaps most impressed by her predecessor's sense of swing. "When I listen to her voice, I hear a highly intelligent person, [choosing] a different time sense than the rhythm section is playing ... and still swinging like a maniac."

Yet the contrasts between the two voices are almost as obvious as between the two lives. "A singer is given a certain set of gifts, their vocal range, for example, and their timbre," notes Freelon, who has been generously gifted in both these qualities. Holiday "had a small range, so she couldn't be big and fat and brassy like a Bessie [Smith]. She didn't have the vocal prowess of a Louie [Armstrong]. But she took the notions of that, the feel of that, the blues of that, and poured it into what instrument she had."

For her tribute album and current tour, Freelon and her instrumental ensemble have reimagined elements of Holiday's repertoire, bringing a reggae vibe to "All of Me," a chamber feel to "Don't Explain," and a bit of Latin to "Them There Eyes." "It's not an imitative thing, not derivative," Freelon forewarns those craving a Lady Day clone. "We're taking the legacy that she left us, which was to say, 'Invent yourself, reinvent yourself, be honest, tell your own truth.'"