What an incredible feeling of accomplishment it must be! Fifteen or twenty years ago you were singing in local bars and lounges, perhaps with a tip jar to supplement the meager fees the house was paying you. Tonight, people were paying as much as $59 to hear you sing, this time accompanied by the North Carolina Symphony at Meymandi Concert Hall – no tipping please! This is the arc of the career of Nnenna Freelon, jazz diva, five-time Grammy award nominee, star of the 43rd annual Grammy Awards telecast – and a resident of Durham, North Carolina. Her numerous recordings, first with Columbia, and now on the Concord label, have garnered her universal accolades, including some from influential jazz critics, comparing her with Sarah Vaughan.

September 26 was the first of three concerts featuring Freelon in the second half of a pops concert presented by the North Carolina Symphony conducted by William Henry Curry. The more I see and hear from this man, the more I am impressed with his conducting skills, rapport with the players and audience, and obvious love for and dedication to the music he performs. I must admit from the start that I am guilty of being a “pops” snob. I normally would have no interest in attending a concert labeled as such, but I am very glad I got to hear this one. Franz von Suppé is a composer found on many of these types of concerts and his Overture to Morning, Noon, and Night in Vienna was a rousing opener. A big bravo for Principal Cello Bonnie Thron’s lovely, lyrical, and beautifully executed solo. Speaking of cellos, there were six of them out in front of the conductor, with only one stand placed behind the front row – something I had not seen here before. Having not yet attended another NCS concert this season, I don’t know if this orchestral configuration is permanent or was just for these concerts.

George Gershwin’s Three Preludes, for solo piano, are favorites for transcriptions and arrangements. The second of the three, in c-sharp minor, is a slow bluesy work (quite appropriate for this concert). This was Maestro Curry’s own arrangement, and it was a brilliant piece of orchestration, bringing out lines and harmonies in a unique and captivating manner. Let’s hope that the NCS gives Curry more opportunities to display his talents as a composer and arranger. The remainder of the first half was taken up with a Gershwin medley featuring “A Foggy Day,” “Embraceable You” and “Of Thee I Sing.” This was a Boston Pops arrangement with that distinctive sound where you can almost see the ghost of Arthur Fiedler hovering over the orchestra.

During intermission we got to view some nice, very colorful artwork now on display in the lower lobby of the hall – it is a nice break from the previously bare walls. The stage was set with a Steinway grand, a drum set, bass, and some percussion instruments including conga drums and various chimes and bells. The four musicians handling these instruments strode onto the stage, and after they were set, Nnenna Freelon stepped out to hometown cheers. They launched right into the beautiful ballad “Stella by Starlight.” This was a perfect example of Freelon’s style and approach to jazz and to the Great American Songbook. For the most part, she stays away from up-tempo songs, even to the point of re-working those that fall into that category; it’s all the better, to be bathed in her rich, expressive, sexy voice! She continued with Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark,” one of the finest ballads penned in the 20th century. Without resorting to the almost-complete shattering of the melodic beauty of the song, like Betty Carter and some others, she gently makes subtle alterations that serve to enhance the melodic structure. This was almost a requirement for the next tune – Thelonious Monk’s most famous composition, “Round Midnight.” Even singing this straight, as written in a lead sheet, requires great vocal skills, especially for some of the intervals. Freelon and her combo brought out the wonderful harmonic complexity that has made this both a favorite and a challenge for jazz artists for the past 50 years.

Playing an unobtrusive background role during this set was the orchestra. This belies the skill necessary to play this accompanying role. There were several selections where it was just Freelon’s combo while Maestro Curry took a seat and the orchestra got a rare chance to sit and listen from the stage. Unfortunately, there was nothing in the program notes to indicate who wrote these arrangements, and that is a real disservice to such a deserving talent. They were beautiful, subtle creations that deserve recognition. This also goes for the omission of the names of the members of Freelon’s combo in the program, although she did announce them.

The set continued with a slowed-down, blues-upped rendition of “If I Only Had a Brain,” along with partial, reluctant audience participation. The most interesting selection of Freelon’s set was one of the staple of “oldies” radio stations and one of the greatest hits to come out of Motown – Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown.” Again, I would like to know who did this arrangement because it was one of the most beautiful recreations of what has become an overplayed hit. It was given a slow, almost tango-like feel, and Freelon’s evocative style brought new meaning to the lyrics.

It’s refreshing to hear different styles and flavors of music in familiar venues, and it was great to hear jazz in Meymandi, especially when it was just Freelon’s quartet playing. She sang a generous set, and each selection was a revelation. Nothing she sings is like a version you have heard before. Her comforting stage presence and dramatic expressive manner (without resorting to ostentatious display) complements her stunning voice. As advertised, she is indeed a Jazz Diva, and we should all be proud to have had some small share in helping her ascend from local singer to the top of her profession.