Ms. Freelon possesses a strong and expressive voice and proved an engaging storyteller both as a singer and a raconteur. Her backing quintet matched her well; a rhythm section highlighted by percussionist Berverly Botsford demonstrated incredible suppleness and attention to the music’s nuances, and pianist Brandon McCune was consistently clever in his soloing and accompaniment-the fugue-like reading of the theme to Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder’s "Tears Of A Clown" (ably assisted by guitarist Scott Sawyer) and a surprisingly effective quote of the "James Bond Theme" during "Nature Boy" are just two of the examples that come to mind.
Their set included numbers from a wide range of sources, several of which can be heard on the Live album. An early highlight was Freelon’s own "Circle Song", while the standard repertoire well represented by a groove enhanced reading of"All Or Nothing At All" and Freelon’s harrowing delivery of Bobby Troup’s "Meaning Of The Blues." Less usual fare came in the form of the band’s unique interpretations of "I Feel Pretty" from West Side Story and the aforementioned "Tears Of A Clown", one of two Stevie Wonder songs in the set. The other, "My Cherie Amour", came complete with a funny story about how, at the time when the song was a hit for Mr. Wonder, she was experiencing unrequited love for an "Older man in the fifth grade." Especially poignant was her offering of Burt Bacharach’s "I Say A Little Prayer For You", dedicated to those affected by the then-raging fires.
The artistry of Nnenna Freelon provided a welcome respite in a troubled time; her new Concord release Live is an engaging demonstration of her abilities as a live performer, but there’s still nothing quite like the real thing. Her engagement at Catalina’s was also a worthy closing to an era in Los Angeles jazz history. It is certainly a little bittersweet to see the intimate original location of Catalina’s Bar & Grill shutting its doors after seventeen years. Owner Catalina Popescu is promising bigger and better things when the club reopens in its new location on Sunset Boulevard and, given all she and the club have accomplished, it seems foolish to doubt her.