We were tantalizingly close to the seventh anniversary of the first Jazz at the Bechtler concert that launched a whole season of First Friday bop sessions at the Bechtler Museum of Art in 2010-11. Not only were the new series and the new venue – the acoustically satisfying lobby of the Bechtler – firmly entrenched in Charlotte's musical scene with surprising speed, by the 2013-14 season. But also, the Friday revels had expanded to two sets – one at 6:00 pm and another at 8:15, to accommodate the burgeoning demand. Recalculation may once again be on the mind of Christopher Lawing, the Bechtler VP who introduces the concerts, when the current season ends. Already enlarged from its original seven monthly concerts to a full complement of 12, the 2017-18 series had sold out both concerts at two of its previous four events, dating back to July, before the regal arrival of Nnenna Freelon, the six-time Grammy Award nominee. "Nnedless" to say, her two sets were also sold out.
Little wonder. One of the best aspects of the Bechtler series is its instrumental backbone, the Ziad Jazz Quartet led by saxophonist Ziad Rabie. The quartet is particularly transcendent when backing a vocalist, because nearly all singers who are headlining club dates arrive onstage with only a piano trio as backup. Add a horn, whether a trumpet or a reed, and the sound is deeply enriched, with new opportunities for musical conversation and dialogue. During their songs, Rabie and Freelon were able to establish a rapport that could conjure up memories of Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto or Lester Young and Billie Holiday performing together. Playing electric piano, Noel Freidline provided all the backup Freelon needed with his witty accompaniment on "I Thought About You," and acoustic bassist Ron Brendle provided an even more intimate interlude duetting on "Skylark."
Freelon didn’t make her entrance until after the Ziad Quartet had shown its mettle with their arrangement of "Walkin'," a tune that has been associated with Miles Davis since the early 50s and is regarded as a cornerstone of the hard bop movement by no less of an authority than NEA Jazz Master Dan Morganstern. Rabie's arrangement gave ample space to all the members of the quartet, the leader taking the opening statement of the melody and the first solo on tenor sax, in a fleet style that evoked John Coltrane and Joe Henderson. Freidline slipped in a snippet of "Something's Coming" from West Side Story into his solo before Brendle took a full chorus. Then Rabie and Friedline took turns trading four-bar bursts with drummer Al Sergel before the saxophonist took the out-chorus.
To such a rousing prelude, Freelon needed to offer a swinging response – and she did, with a very unlikely title. After a brief diversionary verse, Freelon launched into "Nature Boy" at a quickened pace you rarely hear, ending her vocal with a flourish of scatting before Rabie picked up his soprano sax and soloed. Freelon returned with another surprise, a chorus of "Nature Girl" that closely echoed the original until she reached the famous closing couplet, "The greatest thing you will ever learn/Is just to love and be loved in return," where she offered a new nugget of wisdom telling us to love and live fearlessly. The transformation of the song from mystery to jubilation was completed with a vocalese fantasia elaborating on that credo.
The Ziad Quartet and Freelon seemed to be on the same page when it came to spicing up each song with a sprinkling of novelty. Duke Ellington's "Just Squeeze Me" briefly detoured, courtesy of the instrumentalists, into Gershwin's Rhapsody and bebop's "Salt Peanuts!" exclamation. Freelon poured additional scat embroidery over the la-de-das already in the lyric of "'Tis Autumn" and accelerated Charlie Chaplin's anthemic "Smile" to a speed that greatly dimmed its usual melancholy – before further accelerations by Rabie and Freidline eradicated and gleefully stomped on that melancholy at a presto pace. The songstress must have been referencing the famous Coleman Hawkins hit rather than the actual date of composition when she told us she was taking the 1939 "Body and Soul" on a Jamaican vacation. I'm not sure whether a reggae "Body and Soul" would have infuriated Hawkins or made him smile. The Bechtler crowd loved it.
Even as a duet, "I Thought About You" had a fresh twist as Freelon free-styled a standup improvisation before settling into the customary lyric, and her second foray into feminism for "I Feel Pretty" was kookier than her "Nature Girl" prank. Apparently, Freelon fancied the idea of having all the men sing out "I Feel Pretty!" since that gender is responsible for nearly all the ugliness in the world. The arrangement, releasing into a swinging tempo when Freelon's first vocal was halfway through the lyric, sustained the caprice. It was actually refreshing to hear the ensemble taking a conventional tack when they reached "The Christmas Song" – and reassuring, since those "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" need no extra pizzazz.
After that, there was just one last fluttering of Freelon's frolicsome tendencies as she evoked an abbreviated aviary before settling into Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark" with Brendle. The youngest song on the evening's playlist, Stevie Wonder's "Lately" from 1980, received a respectful treatment, becalmed into a gentle samba until Freelon and the band ended by jamming on the refrain before fading out. No attempt was made to emulate the majestic crescendo of Wonder's performance here, but that may be because Freelon was holding back until her finale, Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer's "Moon River," offered up as a tribute to two late jazz greats, singer Al Jarreau and pianist Geri Allen. I'd never heard the song utilized as a love call to someone dearly departed, but the Mercer lyric works well that way, and Rabie added to the poignancy of it with a fierce solo on tenor that demonstrated his raspy Grover Washington mode. Freelon returned to the song at the halfway mark, not letting go until, riffing on the last two lines with Rabie and the other members of his quartet, she had turned the yearning of the song into joy and tribute into celebration.