By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Compelling, captivating and classy, Nnenna Freelon can light up any stage with her smile and her voice.
The six-time Grammy nominee appears tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the University of Hawaii at Hilo Performing Arts Center. It’s part of a four-island tour for the Boston-strong singer, composer producer and arranger. It’s her second time in Hawaii and her first foray outside of Honolulu.
She sang for President Barack Obama at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in 2011.
“It was awesome to sing for him and all these world leaders. It was an honor,” she said Wednesday from Maui. “Just the opportunity to be invited back here is really great, too. Now we actually have a chance to see something.” Asked what she’d like to see, she replied, “Volcanoes and whales.”
When she talked to the Tribune-Herald, Freelon had just finished a songwriting workshop with a group of Valley Isle eighth-graders she described as “great, wonderful kids.”
“It’s great to actually meet the people and do some culture exchange in that way,” she said. Such workshops are a hands-on expression of two of her passions — jazz and education.
Freelon, who says she is grateful for the journey she’s on, got a relatively late start as a professional vocalist, when she was in her late 30s.
“It’s not a race,” she explained. “I have a beautiful life with a wonderful husband of 33 years and children and grandchildren. And I’m at a point in my career where I’m stronger than ever, in the best voice of my life, and I’m still having a grand time. It takes so long to do this thing well, this thing we call jazz singing, a very long time. Maybe not to get the technical part of it, but to understand what you’re singing about takes a really long time.”
That journey has had some pretty amazing stops along the way, including the Hollywood Bowl with opera superstar Jessye Norman and Jimmy Fallon’s iconic TV house band, The Roots, Laura Karpman’s undertaking of Langston Hughes’ “Ask Your Mama” at the Apollo Theater, and the Tanglewood Jazz Festival with the Duke Ellington-inspired “Dreaming the Duke.” She also made her acting debut in the Mel Gibson-Helen Hunt romantic comedy “What Women Want” and is in the process of creating a multimedia stage project called “The Clothesline Muse,” in which she sings and acts.
“I’ve written the book, so I’m thrilled about that,” she said. “It’s the story of women and their work as domestics. It’s stories that have not been told. I did interviews with women who were my mom’s and grandmother’s age, and some of the stories are so compelling. I’ve stitched together these stories into a theatrical piece, and I play the role of the Clothesline Muse. I’m looking at premiering in Philadelphia in March 2014. We’re doing a work-in-progress showing next month. We’ve got an invited audience and I’m actually going to bounce some things off them.”
Then, there’s the six Grammy nominations — impressive for sure, but with overtones of a familiar soap opera diva.
“I do feel like the Susan Lucci of jazz vocalists but it doesn’t really bother me because I didn’t get into this for that,” she said. “I mean, if I get to take one of them home, hallelujah! But I put out a Christmas record last year that was self-produced. It’s on the long list for the Grammys this year in the Best Jazz Vocal category, but we’ll see. It’s a long shot. I can’t remember a Christmas record who ever made it to the short list (of nominees). But it just goes to show you that my instincts were right. I wanted to do a Christmas record, but my label said, ‘Ah, we don’t do Christmas records.’ So I did it myself and it’s on the long list and that’s awesome. If it doesn’t go any further than that, I’m in good shape.”
Tickets are $25 general, $20 discount and $12 for UHH and Hawaii Community College students and children up to age 17, available by calling the UHH box office at 932-7490 or online at artscenter.uhh.hawaii.edu.
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.