Southern California is noted for its periods of craziness, and right now certainly seems to be one of them. Still trying to make sense of the tragicomedy of the statewide recall election and the ascendancy of the Governator, the Southland has been further challenged by strikes affecting the area’s largest grocers and public transit authority and, last but far from least, a series of wildfires that has taken lives, destroyed homes and devastated thousands of acres of forest in five different counties. During the last week of October, with the fires near their apex, one rare oasis of sanity could be found at Catalina’s Bar & Grill in Hollywood, where the great singer Nnenna Freelon completed a four-day residency. This was a great opportunity to put all these troubles momentarily aside and come together for live jazz and celebration--Nnenna and Concord Records were celebrating both the release of her new Live
CD and her tenth year with the label, while Catalina’s was celebrating its seventeenth year of presenting live jazz and its last week in its current location.
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.