Back to the Classics: Rediscovering Nancy Wilson

When people ask me why I like classical music, I tell them that I like it because it moves me. Let me clarify, however, that European music of the 19th century is hardly the only genre I enjoy. Far from it; everything from Led Zeppelin to Count Basie suits my tastes. I suppose, then, I’d better admit that this column is not all about classical music (that would be incredibly provincial). No, it’s about “the classics,” those songs, albums and artists that deserve to be dug up, brushed off and shared. Though a far cry from the likes of Mussorgsky and Borodin, jazz singer Nancy Wilson definitely warrants another look.

If you haven’t ever heard of Wilson, I’m not surprised. These days, when people think of the great American singers of yesteryear, they recall Mel Tormé, Andy Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and so on. Rarely do you ever hear the name Nancy Wilson mentioned. Let me tell you, this drives me nuts. With three Grammys and more than 70 albums under her belt, Wilson deserves her spot in the echelon of those who so famously interpreted that fabulous compilation of 20th century works known colloquially as the Great American Songbook. Admittedly, she’s been relegated to obscurity by what iTunes dubs her eschewing of the jazz vocal tradition of “personalizing a song.” But I don’t anchor my enjoyment of Wilson’s music to the notion that no good singer is without a cult of personality. Despite this observation, I doubt that any sound can emotionally transport me as easily as her voice, one that once earned her the nickname, “The Girl with the Honey-Coated Voice.”

A lot of people will do their level best to convince you that jazz is boring or inaccessible. I do admit that some of it is rather obtuse and rhythmically overwrought. But I challenge you to listen to one of Wilson’s greatest hits, “Guess Who I Saw Today,” and tell me frankly that you found the song “inaccessible.” This recording, featured on her album “Something Wonderful,” combines the piano, drums, electric guitar and human voice in a way that positively intoxicates the soul. Maybe it’s just me, but the sound of that lush, bluesy guitar coupled with Wilson’s deft vocals just drip with effortless class. This song begs a roaring fire and a strong drink, for crying out loud! (And what Yalie doesn’t enjoy that kind of combo?)

Released in 2005, “The Great American Songbook” is truly one of Wilson’s best albums because it presents her as a supremely talented singer of jazz standards. If you do end up buying this highly recommended record, listen carefully to those songs made famous by the Broadway stage and the silver screen of Hollywood. “Tonight,” “Bewitched” and “People Will Say We’re In Love,” among others, showcase Wilson’s unparalleled ability to take popular show tunes and imbue them with a tasteful jazzy spin. But perhaps the best vocals on the record can be heard in “The Nearness of You,” a well-loved tune from 1938. Though covered by countless acts ranging from Nat King Cole to Cake, this song fits Wilson’s voice in a uniquely tender way that is, in a word, soothing. My parting advice: if you’re feeling stressed (read: always), a cup of something warm and Mrs. Wilson will do you better than any medicine ever could.

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