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Artist Profiles

Nancy Wilson: Turns to Blue

By Published: June 13, 2007
Wilson's regard for fellow musicians suffuses any discussion of her work. She says simply, "They lead me. Rhapsodizing about tenor saxophonist Ben Webster's tonal quality and deep, rich sound, she says, "The thing I liked ... the greatest of the horn players were those who knew the lyrics to the songs. And you can tell the difference. I can hear it in some guitar players because they are playing the lyrics. To me that makes all the difference. No surprise that, from one so notable for the crisp, honeyed warmth she's always lavished on lyrics, from her aching delivery of "All Night Long to her sassy rendition of "Face It Girl, It's Over.

One of her guitarists, Gene Bertoncini, raves about another classic Capitol recording, But Beautiful (1969). "It was a great thrill to walk into [the session] and see Ron [Carter] and Grady [Tate] and Hank [Jones]. I knew them all, but it was the first time we worked together. And Nancy. It was a thrill to hear her come into my earphones, she was singing so great.

Bertoncini makes an interesting observation about this singer, whose record-selling numbers were right up there with Frank Sinatra's. "I think Nancy Wilson is the most underrated singer in the universe. She is a star, no question about it. But she should be like the real major singers, the giants like Ella [Fitzgerald] and Sarah [Vaughan]. Nancy should have been right up there. I've been on a lotta albums with a lotta singers and I've probably appeared on a thousand albums for various reasons. But Nancy's is the album I always tell people to get. ...I'm extremely proud of being a part of that.

A mention of one of Wilson's signature songs, her debut single "Guess Who I Saw Today, turns conversation with her to other singers. She remembers talking about that song with Carmen McRae, whose memorable earlier version Wilson first listened to when she was fifteen. Revealing an acute talent for mimicry, Wilson suddenly conjures McRae's voice to remark drolly, "There was no doubt in my mind where you heard it. I knew you didn't hear it from Eydie Gorme. A recollection which evokes a huge laugh from Wilson.

Her sense of sisterhood with "all the ladies is evident, as she reminisces fondly about Ella, Sarah and Dinah Washington gifting her with her first pair of jeweled shoes. It carries over to an enthusiastic interest in her fellow Grammy nominees from last year. "Roberta Gambarini I know because she does things with the Dizzy [Gillespie] band. And Nancy King, Lew Matthews, my conductor knows her.

Nancy Wilson

Awards and honorary doctorates continue to accumulate. Wilson's musical knowledge and relationships with musicians have, since 1995, made her the perfect host for National Public Radio's Jazz Profiles series. For nearly a decade she's been associated with MCG Jazz, a record company and social enterprise supporting youth education programs, which fits perfectly with Wilson's longstanding involvement in social issues, including HIV/AIDS. In a sudden, impassioned outburst Wilson says, "...and this homophobic crap has got to stop, when speaking about how members of the black and Latino communities need to come forward and deal with relevant issues.

Though she's no longer touring, her concert schedule remains busy and Wilson is definitely not retiring. A follow-up to her latest Grammy-winner is already in the works as she searches for new songs. Wilson relishes working with big bands and promises, "I want the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band to do at least one or two tunes on each CD I do. They lift the spirit of the album up. We just have a ball.

Her love of music making undiminished, she practically sings her comment as she raves, "What's going on is some of the younger musicians are rearranging some of the tunes. There's a different take and some of the charts are just -----ooooh. And Gerald Wilson! Puleeeeeeeeze. I mean I have no words!

Selected Discography

Nancy Wilson, Turned to Blue (MCG Jazz, 2006)

Nancy Wilson/The Great Jazz Trio, What's New (Eastworld, 1982)

Nancy Wilson, But Beautiful (Blue Note, 1969)

Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley, Nancy Wilson & Cannonball Adderley (Capitol, 1961)

Nancy Wilson, The Essence of Nancy Wilson: Four Decades of Music (Capitol, 1960-83)

George Shearing/Nancy Wilson, The Swingin's Mutual (Capitol, 1961)

Photo Credits
Top Photo: AAJ Visual Arts Gallery
Bottom Photo: Ben Johnson

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