Nnenna Freelon, John Brown aim to make Christmas standards their own

CorrespondentDecember 20, 2012 

The Durham-based jazz singer Nnenna Freelon has a holiday show with the John Brown Orchestra at the DPAC.


  • More information Who: Nnenna Freelon, with the John Brown Big Band When: 8 p.m. Friday Where: The Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham Cost: $24-$44 Details: 919-560-3030; www.carolinatheatre.org

Nnenna Freelon and John Brown are sitting in a corner booth at Tripps Restaurant in Raleigh. Just a couple of hours earlier, they were entertaining a crowd across the parking lot at Quail Ridge Books and Music by singing selections from their latest collaborative effort, simply titled “Christmas.”

Now they’re cooling down, about to take in food and spirits.

Unfortunately, a version of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” that they do not approve of starts playing over the restaurant speakers.

“Why you gonna steal the same arrangement?” asks Freelon. When they learn that the version is performed by Ruben Studdard, Brown gets a bit agitated.

“Now you see – don’t get me started on him!” exclaims Brown. “Why would you ever listen to this when Donny Hathaway’s is … ”

“Do the tune, but do it your way,” adds Freelon.

“Right. Exactly right. Why would you ever want to hear this?”

Someone can’t help but tell them that Chris Brown has also done a cover of the song.

“There’s a Chris Brown version of this?” asks Brown, almost flabbergasted.

“You’re kidding!” says Freelon.

“These are lies – WHAT?” says Brown.

Freelon and Brown take doing covers seriously.

For Cambridge-born, Durham-based, veteran jazz stylist Freelon, “Christmas” was a chance to do standard, yuletide songs in nonstandard ways – but also to keep the holiday spirit intact.

“I wanted to continue that kind of vibe with the Christmas record, realizing that people have real strong relationships with these tunes, but that you don’t have maybe as much freedom as you may like to kind of rip them apart and reorganize them,” she says.

“So, we were trying to get really conscious and respectful of the tradition.”

“I feel like, from my perspective, we didn’t need to do it, but not in the way that most people might think of that,” says Brown.

“The need was because we had something meaningful to say. I’d say we needed to do it because ideas were present and there was a real motivation to do something meaningful.”

Freelon started talking with Brown about rounding up his band and doing a Christmas album after she performed for President Obama at a conference in Hawaii and asked Brown to tag along.

“Unbeknownst to each of us, we’ve both been thinking along this line,” says Brown, who did a Christmas album with his quintet (called “Merry Christmas, Baby”) in 2007.

“And we had the opportunity to talk and this came up quickly. So we found common ground and decided that – she decided that she would let me work on a project with her.”

All the biggies are on “Christmas”: “Silent Night,” “Let It Snow,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” even “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” There is also a version of Duke Ellington’s “I Like the Sunrise.”

“I included it because lyrically it lends itself to the feeling of the anticipation of Christmas,” says Freelon.

Freelon admits there is a more personal reason for doing the album: the passing of her parents.

“Mom died in ’11, Dad died in May,” she says. “And losing those two corner pillars of my life really made me think about family and made me think about how much, how important it is to think of those people that you love and evoke all those warm memories.”

Freelon dedicates the album to her parents, whom she calls “my strongest fans and my most wonderful supporters.”

Freelon also has a strong fan and supporter in Brown, who’s been performing with her since she was a newly signed up-and-comer.

“John was in one of my very first bands,” says Freelon. “So that’s going back, like, 20 years.”

It also helps that they don’t live far from each other.

“And because we are musicians in the same town, our friendship is based on a musical thing but also a real, mutual respect for each other’s craft and musicianship. So, it’s as simple – and as complicated – as that.”

For Fayetteville-born Brown, who’s also an associate professor in the music department at Duke, this was just a opportunity to spend the holidays playing music with an old buddy.

“It’s particularly meaningful to me to get to do something like this with a six-time Grammy-nominated artist and to say that I can do this for somebody who’s my friend,” he says.

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