Nancy Wilson ‘The Early Years: 2 Complete Albums Plus Bonus Singles’ (Jasmine) 4/5

nancy-wilsonA Downbeat critics poll voted the collaboration album between Cannonball Adderley and Nancy Wilson from 1961 on Capitol the greatest vocal album of all-time which is some accolade considering the strength of competition from the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. This latest re-issue focuses attention on the first two albums Wilson recorded for the Capitol label for whom the singer worked with throughout the 1960s and with great commercial success.
Key to the success of these early recordings were the arrangements of conductor Billy May who had worked so well with both Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. Nancy Wilson was only in her early twenties when these sides were cut and the experienced guidance of May served her well. Viewed from a wider historical perspective, Wilson was clearly influenced by the voice of Dinah Washington whom she most resembles, but it may come as a surprise to learn that Nancy Wilson was equally influenced by the high-pitched voice of Jimmy Scott. Top session musicians were available at these L.A. sessions and featured veteran saxophone player and arranger Benny Carter and drummer Stan Levey among others. Contemporary blues and jazz were still closely linked at this juncture and Wilson makes a decent stab at Willie Dixon’s evergreen, ‘Seventh son’, a song that both Mose Allison and Georgie Fame would record to great acclaim. A real favourite of pianist Bill Evans was, ‘My foolish heart’, and Wilson displays great sensitivity on this most tender of ballads. A reading of Sinatra’s virtual signature tune, ‘In other words (fly me to the moon)’, reveals that Wilson was still learning her craft, but eager to soak up the lessons of the masters.

Vocal jazz at the beginning of the 1960s was a consistently popular seller and this explains why jukeboxes pounded to the sounds of singles that promoted the longer format LPs. Four bonus cuts from the 45s have something of an R & B flavour and, aside from the Dixon original, include a reprise of Junior Parker’s late 1950s hit, ‘Next time you see me’. A second album, ‘Something wonderful’, from 1960, was more jazz focused and showcased a fine array of jazz instrumentalists that included tenorist Ben Webster, drummer Shelly Manne and vibraphonist Emil Richards. From this, the numbers, ‘Call it stormy Monday’ which makes a nice alternative to the Lou Rawls interpretation and ‘I wish you love’ stand out.

Nancy Wilson is that most versatile of vocalists and could adapt to R &B, pop, as well as uptempo and ballad jazz songs and in this respect there are parallels to be made with the career of Esther Philips. However, in the case of the former, Wilson’s commercial success angered the purists and what should have been seen as a strength was perceived by some as ‘sell out’ material that was held against her. That would be an unfair judgement and while it is true to say that not all of her recordings are jazz-oriented, Nancy Wilson occupies a halfway house between jazz and R & B idioms, but was perfectly capable of handling jazz duties as and when required. By the mid-1960s Nancy Wilson was a major selling artist for Capitol, especially once Frank Sinatra had left the label to found his own Reprise label, and reputedly she was second only to the Beatles in the 1960s. By 1967, Nancy Wilson was popular enough to warrant her very own television show on NBC. The well researched biographical notes from Bob Fisher help present a more rounded picture of Nancy Wilson’s early career on Capitol.

For the uninitiated, Jasmine is a re-issue label that has long-standing ties to the world of jazz and during the 1980s released on vinyl some of the endearing albums on the Impulse label, most notably the seminal recordings of John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. Hopefully, more neglected recordings from the Capitol stable will follow in due course, and Nancy Wilson’s collaborative album with George Shearing would be worthy of re-issue and the same could be said of the late 1960s small group recording, ‘But beautiful’, with a dream line-up of Hank Jones, Ron Carter and Grady Tate.

Tim Stenhouse