The enigmatic nature of jazz singing was never more apparent than during Nnenna Freelon's opening set at Catalina Bar & Grill on Tuesday night. At first glance, the much-praised North Carolina-based singer seems to have all her jazz ducks in a row: a nice sound, an easy way with a phrase, a good ear for harmony and precise intonation.
But jazz singing is more than the sum of its individual parts, more than technical achievement alone. It also is about storytelling and audience interaction, about the phrasing of words, emotional density and--most of all--a deeply intimate connection with the rhythmic propulsion known as swing. And too often most of these elements were difficult to locate in Freelon's performance.
In the rare moments when they were present, Freelon was very fine indeed. "And I Thought About You" and "Footprints" were high points. She reached for, and often found, the essence of each tune, striking a rich lode of lyricism in the former, a ballad, and displaying a strutting, hard-driving, nonverbal vocal articulation in the latter, a Wayne Shorter instrumental line.
More often, she was just a bit off the mark. "Skylark" started well, with a cool, floating exposition of the initial melodic phrases, then drifted aimlessly into overblown crescendos that killed the song's absolutely vital sense of innocence. Her own tunes--notably "Circle Song" and "Gaia's Garden (with the curious pronunciation "Jee-yuh's Garden")--were fascinating more for the sincerity of their intentions than for the fruitfulness of the music they delivered.
For all her uncertainties, however, Freelon is a potentially important singer. If she is still finding her way, still blossoming as an artist, the musical promise she holds makes the slow process of creative maturation worth the wait.
But, if she doesn't draw better audiences than the sparse, not especially responsive crowd that showed up for her first night, we may not see Freelon very often in the Southland. One can only wonder why Columbia, her record company, would allow a performer of her stature to open at L.A.'s major jazz venue without providing sufficient support to guarantee something close to a full house. It's not exactly the way to help an artist build a significant career.
* Nnenna Freelon and her trio at Catalina Bar & Grill through Sunday. 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., (213) 466-2210. $12 cover every night, except $15 on Saturday, with two- drink minimum. Freelon performs two shows nightly, at 8:30 and 10:30.