11 JAN 08 ANNE FARNSWORTH
Five-time Grammy-nominee Nnenna Freelon sings to the beat of her own drummer. And in the case of her upcoming Concord compilation, Better Than Anything: The Quintessential Nnenna Freelon, those beats range from reggae to mambo to groove, literally putting a new spin on some old chestnuts.
Nearly every one of the 12 cuts on this album is presented with a surprising and unique rhythmic accompaniment. It's as if Freelon and her arrangers took index cards labeled with songs and their traditional rhythms, ripped them in half and shuffled them around to create interesting mashups.
"Body And Soul" is refreshed with a reggae backbeat while "I Won't Dance" is repackaged as a mambo (and yeah, I wouldn't dance to a mambo, either). "Button Up Your Overcoat" and Smokey Robinson's "Tears Of A Clown" take on deeper meaning as groove ballads in pensively minor keys.
Freelon sings with heart, committing herself completely to the character of each song. On two cuts, the warmth of her voice is enhanced by the honey-smooth sound of vocal group Take 6, who join her on "Straighten Up And Fly Right" and the pop ballad "Ooh Child." Though most of the selections are upbeat, she sings the African-American spiritual "Balm In Gilead" with a simple solo piano accompaniment, showing us a softer, more somber side to her style.
A first-rate roster of backup musicians lays a high sheen on an already polished presentation, creating a collection that is creative, stylish and chic -- just like the lady herself. The album hits stores Jan. 15.