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Freelon, Green produce rich night of music honoring Lena Horne

| Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012, 12:30 a.m.

Singer Nnenna Freelon gave the music of Lena Horne more of a true jazz feeling than her predecessor ever gave it Saturday evening on the North Side.

Freelon did two shows of a tribute called "Lena": A Lovesome Thing" at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. She took some of the music connected with the Hollywood and night club star and turned into jazz at which Horne (1917-2010) only hinted.

She turned "I Feel Pretty" into a bit of funk, for instance, and made "Lift Yourself Up" into an inspirational ballad.

In doing so, she put pianist Benny Green and his trio in the unenviable position of having to be part of the same bill. Freelon's work and voice are so good they would dominate any evening. Green opened the first concert with a set dominated by his own music, and displayed a precise but greatly swinging sense of play.

His "Golden Flamingo" was a wonderful, thoughtful ballad that contrasted to the drive of "Certainly." His work would have made for a nicely satisfying musical night out.

But there was Nnenna Freelon to deal with.

She is one of most under-appreciated singers in jazz. She has a powerful voice that is so clear the strength is kept in control. She has a fine sense of melody and also a good stage manner. As she talked about Horne, it became obvious she was impressed with the singer for more than her musical work. She talked about Horne's activism and her ultimate blacklisting, making it clear that Horne was more to Freelon than a professional role model.

But the music obviously was the most important part of her presentation. She took too-well-known songs such as "Blue Skies" and "Smile" and gave them great life with a modern energy and a vocal strength that was unrelenting.

She also did great versions of two Billy Strayhorn songs, "Something to Live For" and "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing." The latter, she explained, has the apocryphal history of having been written for Horne. She lived for five years in Pittsburgh and came to know the composer at that time. Whether that story is true is not the biggest issue: her version of the song captured its beauty and its fine lyrics.

It was a rich night of music. Freelon and Green both were great bill-sharers and their bands also did fine jobs. Freelon had a trio led by pianist Brandon McCune, and Green's band featured bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, who is unrelated.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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