It was not 1968. The intoxicating young dame who had once sung “How Glad Am I” was not set to make an appearance on this particular evening. Instead, a woman of seventy-odd years had situated herself comfortably atop a chair placed strategically in the middle of an open stage. It looked as if age had finally caught up to with our mistress of ceremonies.

Then, she sang.

And as the band began to play their understated, yet significant role, all those in attendance became privy to a secret that should have already been known.

Nancy Wilson can still sing.

When assessing the faculties of most singers, it would make sense to describe the essential tenets of a talented vocalist—command of register, an extended range, or perhaps even a mastery of form, say melisma or legato. With Wilson, however, it is not that simple. And this is not to say that these qualities do not apply. I could espouse the countless virtues of Nancy Wilson’s technical virtuosity in the traditional sense.  That could work. But, Nancy Wilson is not just any singer.

Her sound is best understood through abstract means. It is a voice with its own personality, a relationship tied directly to its owner. With each syllable and every single note, it sketches an emotional blueprint. Her overall presence is that of a stage actor, drawing out compositions with a vivid imagery through sound. That is why a song like “Guess Who I Saw Today” transforms from simply a great tune into an authentically dramatic experience. In this instance, Wilson plays the role of housewife, meeting her adulterous husband at the door. Slowly, the character takes shape through a vocal medium. It begins with a display of wistful ignorance—her voice innocent and unassuming. As audience to this masquerade, we are, as is presumably her partner, led into a sheepish lull. But, as we watch our narrative progress, so does the voice of Wilson. That understood obliviousness turns into a subtle sarcasm. Her voice is nothing more than dry wit, giving melody to sarcasm. All along our leading lady was in the know; her one act musical concluding with a clever smirk that may not be seen, but most certainly heard.

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And this is why Nancy Wilson has built such an expansive career. With the majority of artists, we recognize a typified sort of song selection—their style. Wilson has displayed an absolute mastery of the jazz art form, and yet, I hesitate to oversimplify her career as such. This vocal multiplicity of which we speak has taken her from classic R&B to bossa nova, with the ever-necessary stops in the world of American standards. There are few artists that can convincingly perform with both James Ingram and Cannonball Adderley. But, again, it’s about range. Nancy Wilson’s voice has always been a palette sound that seems to blend perfectly on any composition.

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There are many tacit examples of Nancy Wilson’s brilliance. I will always remember her stunningly elegant portrayal of the Lionel Hampton and Sonny Burke composition “Midnight Sun.” And at that very same moment, I am drawn to her flawlessly demure take on the timeless Duke Ellington song “Prelude to a Kiss.” But, to fully understand the artist you have to truly experience Nancy Wilson. And that is exactly what she is—an experience. Wilson’s voice is reflective of her spirit. Watching her on that stage, I saw someone more genuine that perhaps any other artist I’ve seen to date. At times, she was brooding and in others quite flirtatious, coyly teasing members of the audience. Whatever, her disposition, it always felt real. There are those who can sing and there are those that can connect. Nancy Wilson knows how to do both.

Words by Paul Pennington


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