Labels come and go, Wilson endures

June 04, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

As a singer, Nancy Wilson has always been something of a smooth operator, delivering songs with uncommon poise and a graceful sense of swing. But is being a smoothie enough to make her a "smooth jazz" artist?

Judging from the Capital Jazz Fest lineup, it most certainly is. Billed as the biggest smooth jazz festival in the nation, the Capital Jazz Fest boasts a host of young-and-funky jazz acts, including the Rippingtons, Al Jarreau, Marcus Miller, Lee Ritenour, Pieces of a Dream - and Nancy Wilson, who, at 60, has been recording longer than many of those musicians have been alive.

Maybe that's why Wilson seems somewhat bemused to learn that she's now considered a smooth jazz star. "That's just other folks [saying it]," she says of the label. "When I first started recording, all albums, across the board, were released as pop." She laughs. "I guess if you're black and live long enough, you end up being a jazz singer.

"I'm still singing what I love, and I'm still being myself," she adds. "Categories change, but it doesn't mean a thing."

Indeed, Wilson's approach is essentially the same as it was in the early '60s, when she enjoyed Top-40 success with such singles as "(You Don't Know) How Glad I Am" and "Face It Girl, It's Over."

"A song is just there," she says. "You hear it, and you sing it. You don't stop and analyze it, and think about, 'OK, how am I going to sing this? Is this going to be pop or jazz?' That has nothing to do with smooth jazz, or any kind of jazz. It's just being a song stylist."

As such, what Wilson looks for in a song is a good story. "I want a beginning, a middle and an end, as opposed to a hook," she explains, adding that she particularly enjoys songs that involve a strong sense of character, like "Guess Who I Saw Today."

"That's the actress coming out," she says.

Even though her current album, "If I Had My Way," finds her backed by synthesizers and drum machines, her touring band is almost totally acoustic, except for a bit of electric piano on two songs. "I keep [my trio] fairly subdued," she says. "I try to, anyway. I can't sing over loud stuff. For me to be able to hear myself over them is really important."

Wilson generally performs with just a three-piece rhythm section, but adds that she loves to sing with a full 18-piece big band behind her. "I came up in the era of the supper clubs with the big bands, and I miss that," she says.

Many in her audience, though, are too young to have heard her play the supper clubs. Instead, their first exposure to her music was a little more homey. "I've heard so many Saturday morning cleaning stories," says Wilson, laughing. "They had to clean the house on Saturday morning, and that's how they were exposed to Nancy Wilson. That's what their mom listened to, cleaning up."

Capital Jazz Fest

Who: The Rippingtons featuring Russ Freeman; Nancy Wilson; Marcus Miller; David Benoit; Acoustic Alchemy; Doc Powell. Second Stage: Chuck Loeb; Maysa; Slim Man; Brian Culbertson; Heads Up Superband featuring Joe McBride, Kenny Blake and Gerald Veasley.

When: Saturday, noon.

Who: Al Jarreau; Boney James; Lee Ritenour; Pieces of a Dream; Will Downing; Candy Dulfer; Paul Taylor. Second Stage: Joyce Cooling; Avenue Blue featuring Jeff Golub; the Braxton Brothers; Pamela Williams; Philip Saisse.

When: Sunday, noon.

Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion

Tickets: $100, $50, $37.50, and $31.50 for pavilion seating; $23.50 for lawn seating. Prices are $5 higher day of show.

Call: 410-481-6500 for tickets, 410-730-2424 for information.

Sundial: To hear excerpts from Nancy Wilson's current release, "If I Had My Way," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6115. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2B.

Pub Date: 6/04/98

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