Trudy Pitts and Nancy Wilson
Mellon Jazz Fridays
The Kimmel Center, Philadelphia
September 15, 2006
The atrium lobby of the Kimmel Center was crowded and abuzz with excitement because it was the first "Mellon Jazz Friday of the season, and furthermore, it was the occasion of Trudy Pitts' daring initiation of the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ as a jazz instrument, and, in addition, Nancy Wilson, one of the all-time great vocalists, with many connections to Philadelphia, was featured on the bill. The atmosphere became even warmer when a young lady in the loge section behind the stage shouted hostile remarks at the gentleman from Mellon Bank who was doing introductory remarks at the podium. (The fellow handled the situation with extraordinary grace and humor, which was about as good a commercial for the bank as you can get.) Then Trudy Pitts came on stage and faced the gartantuan organ console, which she referred to as the "monster. David and Goliath all over again.
Ms. Pitts, however, proved herself a formidable musician willing and able to take on the daunting task of making jazz from a massive pipe organ designed for the classical repertoire. Accompanied by her trio of Tim Warfield on tenor sax, Bob Devos on guitar, and her husband and long-time soul mate, Mr. C (Bill Carney) on drums, Trudy Pitts performed a phenomenal set of music, so well interconnected that it virtually formed a suite, displaying a sensitivity, soulfulness, power and virtuosity that was both startlingly beautiful and left no doubt that she is a predominant master of her craft. If the late great jazz organist Jimmy Smith had heard her, I'm sure he would have been overwhelmed with emotion at her accomplishment. She brought his innovations and mastery to a stunning pinnacle of achievement.
The program she selected for the performance was exquisite. She interwove in a continuous flow the countrapuntal theme from Bach's great cantata, Jesus, Joy of Man's Desiring (a brilliant idea for a motif, since Bach was a master of the organ), with several of her own compositions, a Fat's Waller standard (with perhaps a reference to Pitts' own piano work) and ending up with the universal spiritual "Amazing Grace. The Bach theme was used to connect the jazz compositions and remind us of the rich tradition of the instrument on which she was performing.
After the first "Jesus..., Ms. Pitts did a lovely version of her own ballad, "Anysha, named for her daughter, who was in the audience along with Trudy's son "TC3, a fine jazz vocalist in his own right. Another run of "Jesus... was followed by a second Pitts original, "Steppin' in Minor, and then in the same sequence, there was her own "Trudy's Lament, with a light bossa nova rhythm sustained by Mr. Devos on guitar and Mr. C's steady and precise percussion. Then, Waller's famed "Jitterbug Waltz, featuring Tim Warfield on sax, followed by a final original, "Trudy's Dream, and segueing into (literally) an "all stops out rendition of "Amazing Grace . The latter would have rocked the rafters were it not for the exceptionally clean sound of organ builder Lynn Dobson's remarkable pipes. Every note of that massive instrument is "clean as a whistle (indeed, each pipe of an organ is simply an upscale version of a pennywhistle!). Trudy Pitts proved beyond a doubt that she could slay Goliath (and the audience) if not with a stone and slingshot, then with a little help from her nimble fingering and her dancing feet working overtime all around those foot pedals!
It's hard to sum up an extraordinary achievement such as this. I can only express wonder at Ms. Pitts' phenomenal capabilities and resilience, and also at the craftsmanship of Mr. Dobson and his crew in constructing this remarkable pipe organ with its beautiful craftsmanship and woodwork and excellent tonal quality. It perfectly complements the acoustics of Verizon Hall to produce a pellucid, memorable sound.
This is a hard act to follow! And it could only be accomplished by a top songstress and a real trooper such as Nancy Wilson. The audience greeted her with a thundering round of applause, and she gave everything they could have wanted with this London Palladium type of set. She wooed them with her delightful, alternately serious and humorous remarks, and put everything she had into every song. Ms. Wilson is not just a singer. She is a supremely intelligent, knowledgeable, and experienced person and musician, to which everyone who listens to her jazz interview radio program can attest. She marvelously wove three themes into her conversation and her singing: 1) the struggles of women; 2) the pain and nostalgia of growing older, and 3) the ups and downs of love. Thus, the song, "I Wish I Met You, about meeting someone later in life and wishing you knew them when both of you were young, was sung soulfully as if the lyrics sprung from her own heart. And "Guess Who I Saw Today (I Saw You), about a wife who sees her husband with another woman, was done with gut-wrenching pathos. Ms. Wilson has perhaps a flair for the dramatic and is quite capable of carrying it off well both in repartee and in song.
Although Ms. Wilson's voice seemed a bit weak compared with, for example, her recordings (and I wondered, too, whether the microphone had something to do with it), her musicianship and the depth of her interpretations more than made up for it. This woman knows jazz inside out. She's probably been listening carefully to instrumental musicians as well as vocalists for years, and she has mastered every vocal inflection, glissando, and dynamic nuance it is possible to put into a song. Ever since she came on the scene, she has had the ability to swing majestically, but over the years she has matured as an artist to where she has incorporated much of the history of jazz and popular music into her vocabulary. She can take a tune and turn it inside out, upside down, and around, until she discloses everything that is contained and even hidden within it. The zenith of her interpretive work came with her rendition of "My Funny Valentine, a standard which eternally stimulates musicians' creativity. She did the tune in an ultra high register, giving it a sense of irony, and she used various accents and inflections to squeeze out meanings and metaphors about loving someone "strange or "different. In terms of risk-taking and going to the edge, she seemed to have learned a lot from the later work of her colleague, Betty Carter.
Among the other favorites in a feast of favorites were upbeat, swinging versions of "Can I Have Just One More Dance with You, My Love? , "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart, and "Them There Eyes. Ms. Wilson also did a haunting rendition of "I Can't Make You Love Me, originally sung by Bonnie Rait which, like some of the other ballads, seemed to echo Ms. Wilson's own life. It's to her credit that she brings many levels of personal meaning to her music. This is the sign of a true artist.
Wilson's accompanists were also masterful. Her pianist and music director, Llew Matthews, can play everything from blues to bossa nova with equal vigor and flair. Using electronic keyboards as well as the grand piano, his accompaniment was rich, animated, and at times musically ingenious. John B. Williams, the bassist, and Roy McCurdy, on drums, did impeccable backup work and took some fine solos. Mr. Williams also did an excellent duet with Ms. Wilson on a slow and heartrending rendition of "I Stayed Too Long at the Fair, which is usually done up tempo and misses the whole point of the lyrics. Singer and bassist engaged in a dialogue reflecting the "conversational tradition of music based in the blues.
The concert convinced this writer that Nancy Wilson, always one of the better vocalists to have come out of the swing band and bebop eras, has grown and developed over the years to where she merits consideration as one of the great jazz singers of all time. When she sang her final encore, "I'll Be Seeing You (in All the Old Familiar Places), my heart nearly broke, because in a way she seemed to be saying goodbye to the audience assembled. Tempis fugit. At the age of 72 (she said it herself!), what a superb combination of ever young spontaneity and tasteful vintage wine this grand lady of song delivered. We only wish she would sing for us forever.