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Sound Checks

Nnenna Freelon and Alison Brown
Saturday, April 24; the Sheldon

The combination of jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon and Nashville-based banjo player/guitarist Alison Brown may not seem like a logical blend -- Brown is probably best known for her bluegrass skills, and Freelon comes from a traditional jazz background. But there's more common ground between them than you might imagine.

Before Brown kicked off her recording career as a leader in 1990, she spent time as a member of Union Station, the excellent bluegrass band led by fiddle player Alison Krauss. But Brown also served as musical director for Michelle Shocked's Arkansas Traveler tour, and her banjo work has more in common with the avant-garde stylings of Bela Fleck than with the traditional bluegrass sound. Brown's most recent recording with her quartet, Out of the Blue (Compass), exhibits a smooth instrumental sound with strong Latin-jazz influences and more than the usual amount of Brown's fine jazz guitar work. Freelon has released several recordings as a leader as well, beginning with her 1992 eponymous debut recording on Columbia. Unfortunately, Freelon's strong vocals ended up fighting to be heard over a thicket of strings. But her next release, 1993's Heritage, featured her in a minimal trio setting that allowed her talent to shine. 1994's Listen did feature some of Freelon's original music and received favorable reviews, but at that point she (like Brown) decided to move to a smaller label to maintain more artistic control over her music.

The result was the 1996 Concord Jazz release Shaking Free, which earned her a Grammy nomination. Her 1998 recording Maiden Voyage features Freelon still performing jazz -- but with some blues, folk and pop tunes mixed in for good measure. Sharing the bill at the Sheldon on Saturday, Freelon and Brown should provide one of the more interesting -- and eclectic -- concerts of 1999. (TP)

Shannon Wright and Eric Bachmann
Monday, April 26; Side Door

Only Shannon Wright can enlighten us as to what she's singing about on Flightsafety (Quarterstick). Meaning is buried underneath scattershot lyrical rhythm and mind-numbing flights of verbal fancy. It's as though the listener is peering at the lyrics through a glass block; individually, the words make sense, and an occasional line connects the dots and has rational meaning. But collectively, the songs require a dose of dream interpretation to decipher. The difference between Wright's use of words, though, and the annoying stream-of-conscious detritus that passes as lyrics these days lies in the imagery she projects onto her white wall; "I croon like a lumber crane," she sings on "Rich Hum of Air," and though I'd be hard-pressed to pinpoint a particular meaning inside, the phrase, with all its potential meanings, opens a door rather than closes one.

For Flightsafety, her solo debut (after spending time in NYC rock band Crowsdell), Wright holed up in an Alabama studio with guitar, drum, Wurlitzer, Hammond and piano to create music all by her lonesome (though she had a bit of help from Calexico guitarist Joey Burns and Archers of Loaf singer Eric Bachmann). And you can tell. A solitude is ensconced within each song, and her warbling tone is at times sanguine, at times tentative, but always emotional. You can hear both nerve and nerves inside, and the result is beautiful. Fans of Edith Frost, the first Liz Phair record, Palace and Smog should dig this, though Wright's voice runs circles around any of theirs.

Bachmann also performs. In his work with said band and side project Barry Black, he creates music both curious and unpredictable. (It seems, though, that the only writer who constantly appreciates it is Robert Christgau. Must be bittersweet: praised in the Village Voice, but by him.) (RR)

Justin Hinds and the Dominoes
Wednesday, April 28; Club Viva

The hermitlike Justin Hinds is one of the greatest singers ever to emerge from Jamaica. His long career spans pivotal transitional periods in Jamaican music as ska evolved into rock steady, which later gave birth to reggae. The sugar-throated Hinds began his career as a cruise-ship crooner, but it wasn't long before his prodigious talents were discovered by legendary Treasure Island studio producer Duke Reid. As frontman for the Dominoes, which included other notable stars Dennis Sinclair and Junior Dixon, Hinds began to record at a ferocious pace. His first hit was 1963's ska classic "Carry Go Bring Come," which was soon followed by a slew of hits that included "King Samuel" and "Jump Out of the Frying Pan." Moving to slower rock steady, Hinds kept churning out such winners as "On a Saturday Night" and "Here I Stand." Hinds' relationship with Reid resulted in hundreds of singles, and he was Reid's biggest-selling vocalist from 1963-1972. After the bond between Hinds and Reid inevitably dissolved, Hinds delved into seductive reggae, which also came naturally to the gifted vocalist. A highlight of this period was 1975's Jezebel (Island).

Hinds was always an uncomfortable star, remaining somewhat of a recluse in his rural home in Steertown, St. Ann. By the late '70s, Hinds had all but left what he called the rat race of Kingston behind, but at one point, convinced by friends to return to recording, he was held up at gunpoint outside the studio. That violent incident was the last straw for Hinds, who would remain virtually out of sight until the mid-'80s.

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