Lush life

Nancy Wilson may be the greatest jazz singer left

Nancy Wilson came onto the music scene in the 1960s, a jazz-singing paragon of sultry sophistication and class, a master of the smoldering torch song tempered with cool. Her songs sizzled with emotion--dishing the faithless lover with plaintive cries of unrequited love, confessing the perils of romance in storybook narrative, and combining pathos and sarcasm with touches of humor. She's sung in every possible setting, but admits to being happiest in a darkened, cozy room with mike in hand, sitting cross-legged astride a stool beneath a pastel spot with her audience attentive and at arm's reach. "I like the night clubs," she says. "I'm a saloon singer." But her 40 years in the business (and the 60 albums on her resume) have taken her from small jazz clubs to the concert scene, from big bands to soft rock, and from the saloon spotlight to the symphony stage.

On March 27, the 60-year-old Wilson returns to the Caravan of Dreams and the intimate setting that best suits her style, where she will mix vintage Wilson with offerings from her newest album, If I Had My Way, a nod to rhythm and blues that features a Bill Withers cover and a James Ingram guest vocal. If the strong backbeat, studio reverb, prerequisite Dianne Warren cover, and background vocals suggest unfortunate surrender to marketing concerns, Wilson's vocals remain uncompromised; her voice is slightly darkened with the patina of experience. Wilson still captures the essence of mood, and her ability to invest a song with poetic meaning is unchanged.

It began more than 30 years ago in Ohio, when an attractive young singer began her career in local clubs in and around Columbus. (Fifteen years before that, the Chillicothe, Ohio, native, had won a local talent show and was rewarded with her own TV show, Skyline Melodies, on an area TV station.) By the time she met alto sax man Cannonball Adderly, she was becoming known as a singer to watch...and listen to. Alums of the old school will remember their 1962 disc The Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderly Sessions, an easy-flowing jazz disc featuring such hits as "Save Your Love for Me."

From that point on, with the help and encouragement of jazz artists such as Adderly, Wilson established herself as one of the quintessential interpreters of the jazz ballad; by the mid-1960s, she would become one of Capitol Records' top-selling artists, second only to the Beatles for a short while, and in 1964, she won a Grammy for "How Glad I Am." Songs such as "Guess Who I Saw Today" and "You Can Have Him" redefined the torch song, lending it a narrative feel, complete with plot, tension, and resolution. "There are no stories being told," she says now over the phone. "The romantic ballads--the lyrics just aren't there. But somebody out there is still doing it. It just needs to be exposed."

But changes in the recording industry--the invasion of synthesizer-laden arrangements--have edged Wilson and other jazz-pop artists to the far corners of the airwaves. Wilson lamented the days when music was driven by strong melody and thoughtful lyrics, and great artists recorded great songs.

"They [radio stations] cater to rap music; that's what they want to happen," Wilson says. "Radio stations used to have DJs that could program what they like. That doesn't happen anymore." And gone are the days when recording execs embrace the standards. The singers remain--Wilson cites Regina Bell and Erykah Badu as favorites--but the material is often far beneath their talents.

"There was a time when a great song came out, every great artist recorded it," she says like an old-timer fondly reflecting on the good old days. "Now they use the word 'cover' like it's an insult. The best songs don't get much exposure. As a result, the good songs are hard to find." Then, she adds with not a little vitriol, "There's just too much crap out there."

It is testimony to Wilson's artistic strengths that she still thrives in an industry inundated with disposable tunes and tuneless pulp. But like other veteran artists, she has molded herself to fit; she traverses the spectrum from jazz to pop to R&B, always with characteristic integrity and a level of elegance and sophistication that has become her trademark.

Now, Wilson spends most of her life on the road, playing symphony pops concerts, night clubs, and university auditoriums, and Caravan audiences can expect to hear some of the old Nancy mixed with the new. Except for the silver-trimmed mane and the wizened eyes, she hasn't changed much; the years have done little to dim the glow of the torch singer's flame. If anything, it burns brighter than ever.

Nancy Wilson performs March 27 at Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth.

 
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