Singing Between the Notes?
I must admit I'm not a huge fan of Nnenna Freelon at the start of this post. In my humble opinion, she's a middle of the road singer in a lot of ways. Not only does her music sometime straddle the line between lite jazz and more straight head music, she's sort of middle of the pack, as far as female vocalists go. There's a LOT, (a ton to be frank) who are worse, but there are a lot who are better, bonafide stars like Cassandra Wilson, Shirley Horn, and Dianne Reeves, plus lesser known talents like Dena DeRose, Karrin Allyson, Carolyn Leonhart, and Luciana Souza.
But I'm not here to really critique Nnenna's singing, her approach or her new album, which is called "Blueprint of A Lady" (you guessed it) is a tribute to the music of Billie Holiday. I will say that it's good to see that Nnenna didn't try to replicate Lady Day's vocal style, as seems to be the fashion these days, it's merely a collection of Holiday associated tunes.
Now, on to the subject at hand, intonation. One of the things that bugs me about a lot of singers, even VERY well known ones (ahem, Kurt Elling, etc) is the old issue of intonation. It's not just singers, as I recently had a cd by saxophonist Matt Criscuolo which I simply had to set aside, as he was so flat on the FIRST TRACK (Lotus Blossom) of his new cd he sent us. He starts out ok, but a few bars into the song, I find myself yelling at the cd player, "come on! get that note up there!" In the case of Criscuolo, it sounds like some sort of embrouchure problem or something, though perhaps he's going it on purpose, like Jackie McLean, who has been scolded on occasion for playing a few cents sharp, intentionally, to give his sound a little more "edge".
But again, I'm not here to critique Criscuolo either, rather to talk about something very odd I've noticed in Nnenna Freelon's singing, and upon getting the new cd, I was prepared for it, and listened for it, and it in fact was there! It's not so much an issue of singing out of key, but rather, if you listen closely, Nnenna has a tendency to sing a sort of ambiguous pitch. So much so that if I were transcribing one of her vocal lines (like most true jazz singers, Nneena deviates from the written melody on occasion), I'm not sure how I would notate it. It doesn't drive me up the wall quite like Criscuolo's oh so flat alto tone on Lotus Blossom, but it sort of catches your ear and makes you sit up and listen.
Nnenna's not the only one to do this, I've heard others, even other great singers do this. It's almost an example of a singer "talking" through the lyrics with their speaking voice, rather than "singing" the pitch dead on. If you listen to the new record, you'll hear Nnenna sort of dance around the pitch, hint at it; it's elusive. If you take it to the extreme, you have something like Rex Harrison, talking his way through the Lerner and Lowe songs of My Fair Lady. I really can't say Nnenna is singing "out" of tune, nor is it some Don Ellis-esque quarter tone thing. But it's not like most singers, and depending on your mood, can either catch your ear (in a good way) or make you change the station.