Nnenna Freelon’s mother was a lover of Christmas – the story, the anticipation, the excitement, but most of all, the gathering of her family around her. In her passing, she left her daughter with a gift that has resulted in a dream fulfilled and a holiday album that will extend a mother’s love of Christmas to listeners everywhere.
Venerated jazz vocalist and six-time Grammy nominee Freelon had long wanted to record a holiday album, but couldn’t garner enough interest from her label. So she did what most people do in need of a little help, she turned to a loved one. With a small inheritance received from her mother, she approached John Brown, a long-time member of her musical family, director of Duke University’s jazz program and leader of John Brown’s Big Band. The two, who have shared the stage and collaborated often during their twenty-year friendship, have now joined together to release Christmas, a selection of holiday songs. Brown produced the album and will release it on his own label, Brown Boulevard.
For Freelon, Christmas has always been a time of church and family, “The secular and the sacred were all a part of the celebration. And I love that it’s the one holiday where singing is in the forefront. The music is part of the celebration and definitely one of the elements that make the holidays special. The songs bring up memories of family, childhood, traveling, good food – the parts of the season that warm the heart and the home.”
Her favorite holiday albums have always been big, brassy creations from artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole. She certainly could have created an album that mirrored the vibes of these Christmas classics, but that was not her artistic vision or her personal style. Freelon has built a career on looking at standards from a non-traditional point of view. And since no body of material has been covered more than holiday music, the songs proved to be the perfect setting to stretch Freelon and Brown’s abilities to explore new arrangements and present new takes on traditional songs.
The two artists made their lists of possible tracks independently (both of which she describes as “very, very long!”) then worked together to narrow them down. According to Freelon, deciding which songs to include was sort of like cooking a holiday meal, “You assemble everything, start throwing things together, and as a dish starts to take shape, you taste and see what it needs. You might take something out or put a little more in, until finally you come up with a combination that feels right.”
The final ten songs are an eclectic mix of classic and modern, secular and non-secular and one track that while never considered a holiday tune, has been creatively transformed into one.
If anything proves the spirit of Christmas lives in the heart with no regard for the month on the calendar or reading on the thermometer it is this – when Freelon, Brown and John Brown’s Big Band arrived at legendary music man Mitch Easter’s Fidelitorium Studios in Kernersville, NC, the state was experiencing its hottest summer on record. So with temperatures soaring, Freelon and the band began the work of conjuring a musical family Christmas in June.
The album kicks off with “Swingle Jingle Bells,” a new way to dash through the snow even more quickly thanks to a brisk arrangement by legendary saxophonist Frank Foster. Foster, who passed away during the album’s production, was close to both Freelon and Brown. According to Freelon, “Swingle Jingle Bells is incredibly special to me because Frank is no longer with us, and we had no idea that would be the case at the time. So it’s very special that we will always have this piece of his spirit with us.” After his passing, Foster’s widow entrusted his life’s work to Brown’s jazz program at Duke University as she felt, in his hands, Foster’s legacy would be secure and his work continued to be heard.
The album transitions into “Spiritual Medley”, which opens with “Children Go Where I Send Thee” and Freelon backed only by a drummer until John Brown drops in on the upright bass. The drums, bass and her vocals build and welcome the rest of the band to the track as Freelon transitions seamlessly into “Go Tell It On The Mountain” followed by snippets of “O Little Town Of Bethlehem,” “Joy To The World” and “Angels We Have Heard On High.”
“Let It Snow” follows, starting with a few light musical flakes and quickly building to a flurry of swinging horns. Freelon and Brown move on to Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here” in a nod to a more recent childhood holiday classic.
Freelon, mother to three grown children, remembers well the excitement and exhaustion that comes along with the holidays for many parents. “I am very well acquainted with early Christmas mornings and tucking sleepy children in bed the night before, who in their excitement keep acting like Poppin’ Fresh Dough – jumping out of bed at all hours looking to see if Christmas has arrived.”
She took these memories and transformed a standard she’s loved for years – Duke Ellington’s “I Love The Sunrise.” Freelon added an intro and outro to turn the song into a beautiful tribute to the dawn of Christmas day.
“The song struck me as perfectly expressing the sentiment of sleepy parents assembling toys until the wee hours and the sleepy children restless in their beds wondering if their Christmas dreams will come true the next morning. I knew that it was not a traditional choice for a Christmas album, but felt like it expressed the energy, anticipation and excitement that surround Christmas morning,” says Freelon.
Freelon believes an added level of excitement and anticipation has been a part of the Christmas celebration since the very beginning and the next two tracks (“O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Little Drummer Boy”) reflect that sentiment. “People traveled to Bethlehem because they heard something wonderful happening. Just like today, we travel home for the holidays to celebrate traditions old and new. The holidays are a time of expected traditions, but also of surprise,” Freelon expressed.
And Freelon definitely unwraps a few holiday surprises. It takes musical guts to put a new spin on Christmas classic like “Silent Night.” But Freelon’s bluesy vocal styling and a big dose of Hammond organ, breathe new life into one of the greatest holiday songs of all time, turning it into an unexpected toe tapping, head bobbing good time.
According to Freelon, “We want folks to come away feeling the real friendship that was present in the studio in the way the vocalist and musicians mingle, support and complement each other in the recordings.” Nowhere is that more evident on the album than on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” “John’s debut as a vocalist creates a track where we have fun with each other as only old friends can,” she said.
The surprises continue on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” which turns the slow Bing Crosby standard into a joyful New Orleans style romp. Freelon believes their version resembles a gift whose contents are unexpected, but really, really appreciated, “Sort of like, ‘Oh, wow! You shouldn’t have! But I’m really glad you did!”
So in a season that Freelon believes is all about love and home, she and Brown are busy establishing new holiday traditions. The two have concerts scheduled in Durham, Charlotte, Greensboro and Washington D.C. in the weeks leading up to Christmas. They hope these holiday shows will become annual events that allow them to share their music throughout in North Carolina and the southeast.
In summing up the experience of making Christmas, Freelon said, “It was such a gift to be able to have done this [album] – a gift for my mom for giving me the means to do it, a gift to share those moments in Kernersville with the musicians, and a gift John and I were able to give one another other. The ability to put this record out for friends, families, fans and folks we know will dig it is a gift we can pass on. It truly exemplifies the spirit of the season in gifting and receiving. It’s a beautiful thing.”
“I’m also proud the album is a North Carolina born and bred experience. I’ve made records in a lot of different places, but to be able to make the record in my home state with a wonderful friend and great musicians was truly an honor. Excellence in the arts is everywhere in North Carolina. The state is emerging as a place that not only nurtures the arts, but also helps them to flourish and I’m very proud of that.”