Nnenna Freelon's hands rarely stopped moving during her commanding performance Saturday at the Folly Theater.
As she embellished her singing with fluid motions, Freelon occasionally made the gesture commonly known as "jazz hands." Even when executed by a vocalist as celebrated as Freelon, fully extended fingers on either side of an entertainer's face remains one of the most cringeworthy cliches associated with jazz.
Aside from the intermittently awkward visuals, Freelon's concert was flawless. From the a cappella introduction to her opening song "You and the Night and the Music" to the closing number "Get Out of Town," Freelon held the audience of about 400 completely in thrall.
Freelon, 57, is a thoroughly engaging performer with six Grammy nominations to her credit. A stylistic amalgamation of many distinguished vocalists, Freelon possesses much of Sarah Vaughan's ample range, Nancy Wilson's beguiling charm and Marilyn Maye's impeccable craftsmanship. Like many great singers, Freelon inhabits each song she performs as if its lyrics were inspired by her diary.
Many accompanists might have allowed Freelon to indulge in her sentimental streak. The taut trio that backed Freelon kept her focused. The lyrical pianist Brandon McCune and sonorous bassist Wayne Batchelor impressed, but the band's true star was the aggressive drummer Adonis Rose. His work was so ceaselessly creative that his reduced role as a mere timekeeper made a relatively straightforward version of Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour" the evening's least compelling selection. Freelon praised Rose and Batchelor but seemed most enamored of McCune.
"Brandon has written an arrangement of a song we all love," Freelon said in her telling introduction to "Misty." "But in his hands it becomes a new thing."
That's an accurate summary of Freelon's artistic concept. She and her band don't pretend to be innovators. They add fresh elements to familiar material instead. "Misty" featured an inspired soul-based groove. "Moon River" was transformed into a tear-inducing requiem. A sultry version of "I Feel Pretty" affixed an erotic undercurrent to the show tune. An unusual uptempo treatment of "Nature Boy" and a powerful blues rendition of "Stormy Weather" also captivated.
Freelon's hands remained still during an exquisite take on "The Meaning of the Blues." The audience was transfixed by Freelon's interpretation of the tale of heartbreak. It's moments like those- rather than Freelon's gesticulating- that will be remembered.