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Jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon's latest studio album Time Traveler is a timeless tribute to her late husband, architect Philip Freelon, and the resounding endurance of Black love. It's the Durham songstress' first album in about a decade, and it recently garnered her another Grammy nomination, bringing the grand total to six.
I sat down with Nnenna to discuss her grief-addled, yet somehow hopeful jazz record, which is a welcomed companion in these protracted times of loss.
"Grief puts you outside the changes," the singer declared knowingly at the outset of our conversation. The weight of the reference, she hoped, would not be lost on a fellow jazz musician.
In jazz, "the changes" refer to the chord progression that functions as the temporal and harmonic scaffolding for any song. Musicians rely on these changes for the sake of coherency. By observing the changes, musicians are free to explore sounds and create beauty that resonates with the composer's original interests and the audience's present ones. But when musicians stray from the changes, havoc can ensue—ask me how I know!—and the only saving grace comes when everyone can either find their way back to the original changes or adapt to a new norm.
Freelon has been adapting to new norms since her husband died in 2019. The loss was disorienting, but it did not consign her to utter despair. "Grief fractures you and breaks your vision of who you are into little pieces… I wanted wholeness [after Phil's death]! And the process of me is taking all of those little pieces and putting them back together in a new arrangement that feels whole. That's an ever-evolving… work." This is the mentality grounding Nnenna's approach to Time Traveler—a timestamp of her current position on the path towards wholeness, and discovering new changes in the process.
Running with that theme, Time Traveler interweaves classic love songs and original compositions. In her covers of songs like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Time in a Bottle," Freelon reinterprets these old standards and uses them to sound a new language in response to her current needs. "'Ain't No Mountain High Enough' was not written as a song of hope around death or despair. But this was a conjuring of hope for me… [N]ow that my husband has passed into the spiritual plane, the same melody means something so different. The elasticity of music to comfort you on the journey is what I love."
That's how she can sing the Motown classic with palpable resolve: Grief may have fractured her sense of self, but her desire to connect with Phil nonetheless fuels her rendition.
Longtime fans of Nnenna may be surprised to know the extent of the impact of grief on her voice. It even surprised her. After Phil died, she asked herself: "Did I even have a voice anymore? My ears were clogged with grief too… My prayer was 'please let me survive today.' Let me not be annihilated by my pain!" Such a prayer is a fitting background for the record's opening track, "I Say a Little Prayer." The last line carries new meaning given her circumstances: "To live without you/Would only mean heartbreak for me." Now a widow, Nnenna is experiencing actual, not metaphorical, heartbreak.
This opening number demonstrates Nnenna's attunement to grief not only as a widow, but also as a Black woman. To underscore the heartbreak in the lyrics, the vocalist uses the sound of Black Church gospel blues—a genre swimming in the pain and triumph of 20th- and 21st-century Black America. Brandon McCune on the Hammond organ, joining his wail to hers, opens up a portal in time. On one level, Freelon is moving from this physical world to the Spirit world where Phil dwells. But on another level, she is reaching back to speak to the trauma of slavery.
"We've got Middle Passage grief," said Nnenna. "When we talk about the layered complication of grief, it's a time traveling situation. It's in the atmosphere, it's not just one time. And anything can be anything it wants to be." That means Dionne Warwick's effervescent Motown hit can be a means of "conjuring hope" for a person and a people constantly uttering prayers for those we cannot protect from the vicissitudes of an anti-Black world. "I Say A Little Prayer for You" becomes a compelling illustration of what it means to work out one's healing.
Nnenna and Phil had responded together to that peculiar mixture of pain and hope by founding the NorthStar Church of the Arts in their city of Durham, North Carolina. This church uses "the arts in pure form to connect with the Creator and each other," Freelon explains. The community is also a means of resisting the rapacious gentrification besieging Durham. As prevailing economic interests force the Black community to play outside the changes again, the Freelon family has created a place to help the displaced heal through creating and sharing art.
Much like Nnenna's album, this healing at NorthStar happens through time travel. The church recognizes that both during the antebellum era and today, creative practices have allowed the grieving and dispossessed to transfigure present tragedies and evils witnessed in Durham. That's why the Freelons named the community NorthStar, after the guiding light which led the way for enslaved African Americans escaping to freedom.
My favorite song on Time Traveler is the title track, because of how it celebrates the capacity of Black music to help us find new changes. The song is punctuated with voice memos from Phil, talking about his love for her as if he were there in person. Nnenna responds: "I will love you in a place where there is no space or time." Such an intimate exchange made public beckons us closer and celebrates the unshakeable profundity of Black love.
Neither the spectre of annihilation that threatened to consume Freelon after her husband's death, nor the gentrification of Durham, nor the ongoing death-dealing effects of the Middle Passage, will keep her from singing these new changes. Her love cannot be bound by the confines of time and space, a context in which Black life can be snuffed out for whatever reason and whatever time. That is to say, her mourning will not drown out her morning, but will instead live next to it.
This coexistence is what I relish more than anything about witnessing the mourn-full quality of Black music.
Mourn-full music takes the pain of this Black world and says that Black love—platonic and romantic, intrapersonal and communal—is worth cultivating anyway. Mourn-full music takes centuries-old grief and says that we can sing more than a dirge in these strange lands. It rides the intrepid ship of Black faith into the buffeting seas, because the captain knows our horizon on the other side, yet is still tender enough to whisper: "Hold on just a little while longer, everything gon' be alright."
This is the hum in the hull, the ring shout on Durham plantations. This is the dissonance and resolution of North Carolinians Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane with their instruments. This is the despair and the hope present in Nnenna's declarations on Time Traveler. This is the logic that fuels Black folk to find new changes again and again and again and again.
If you are sitting in mourning right now, receive the summons from Time Traveler. Wholeness is possible for you on the other side of fracture. Our chords may have been derailed, but Nnenna shows us that there is beauty yet to sing.