Review: ‘Nnenna Freelon’

A week after the much-ballyhooed Disney Concert Hall opening, another significant, if smaller-scaled, musical transition is taking shape, as the Catalina Bar and Grill, the leading jazz club within the Los Angeles city limits, is ending its 17-year run on Cahuenga Boulevard. Freelon is the last artist to play the club, opening with a refreshingly inventive set.

A week after the much-ballyhooed Disney Concert Hall opening, another significant, if smaller-scaled, musical transition is taking shape, as the Catalina Bar and Grill, the leading jazz club within the Los Angeles city limits, is ending its 17-year run on Cahuenga Boulevard. It will to move into new digs nearby at 6725 Sunset Blvd. in mid-November. Nnenna Freelon is the last artist to play the club, opening the booking with a refreshingly inventive set.

The atmosphere at Catalina Tuesday night was more festive than nostalgic — with fond memories of past gigs mixed with the knowledge that this comfortable room isn’t going down for the count, just moving around the corner per se. Freelon, who released her first live album on Concord only three weeks ago, picked up on the convivial mood, her band pumping out loose-limbed conga or bongo-driven grooves, her fresh, bright, nimbly scatting voice putting new spins on familiar material.

Not content to take the easy path, Freelon and her band went out of their ways to craft unusual, often complex arrangements, some of which can be heard on the new album. She turned Leonard Bernstein’s giddy waltz “I Feel Pretty” into a “So What”-like modal vamp with a straight-ahead bridge cobbled into the structure. The cocky uptempo “All or Nothing at All,” which at times drew from the example of Frank Sinatra’s swinging ’60s rendition and closed with a sexy coda featuring just bass and castanets, also worked. One that didn’t was a funky, driven rendition of “Nature Boy,” which seemed to pulverize this delicate, off-kilter piece of material.

Like some other jazz singers in search of a way out of Tin Pan Alley, Freelon is dipping into the heyday of Motown, having already devoted an album to the songs of Stevie Wonder.

Construction delays have pushed back the date the new Catalina will open. It is now slated for Nov. 18 with Roy Hargrove set to perform.

Nnenna Freelon

Catalina Bar and Grill; 105 seats; $25 top

Production

Presented inhouse.

Cast

Band: Nnenna Freelon, Brandon McCune, Scott Sawyer, Wayne Batchelor, Kinah Boto, Beverly Botsford. Reviewed Oct. 28, 2003, closes Nov. 2.
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