"Blueprint of a Lady: Sketches of Billie Holiday"


Tribute albums devoted to Billie Holiday have been recorded by singers as diverse as Abbey Lincoln, Tony Bennett, Etta James, Rosemary Clooney, Chet Baker and Diana Ross. Now pop-jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon has accepted the risk of comparison to the incomparable on her new album, "Blueprint of a Lady: Sketches of Billie Holiday." Freelon proves she can turn in a respectable impersonation of Holiday on "You've Changed," matching her breathy, pause-punctuated delivery against Doug Lawrence's Lester Young imitation on tenor sax. But on the other 14 tracks, Freelon puts aside mimicry for a more ambitious -- if not always successful -- approach.

With her pianist Brandon McCune, Freelon wrote "Only You Will Know," an imaginary dialogue with her hero. Freelon asks if she should copy Holiday down to the slow drawl in the throat and the white camellia in the hair. No, Holiday replies, "sing until you know your own name." Freelon takes this imagined advice to heart and rearranges some of Holiday's best known songs to fit Freelon's bigger voice and 21st-century context.

Thus the album opens with a salsa arrangement of "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" and closes with a reggae version of "All of Me." Those -- and the overwrought reading of "Strange Fruit" -- come off as rather contrived. More convincing are the sultry seduction of "Don't Explain," the Stevie Wonder funk of "God Bless the Child," the Steely Dan polish on "Lover Man," the finger-snapping swing of "Now or Never" and the avant-Latin treatment of "Willow Weep for Me." Best of all is the understated blues of "Left Alone," a song Holiday co-wrote but never recorded.

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing Saturday at the Rosslyn Jazz Festival.