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Jazz : Warm and Chatty Wilson Has the Ability to Expand

November 14, 1994|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nancy Wilson's concerts have the feeling of a continuing conversation with a chatty, if somewhat self-focused, old friend. Her between-songs monologues are rich with personal commentary and the kind of subtle allusions that demand a common frame of reference and understanding.

On the plus side, this sense of intimate colloquy can generate all sorts of extended implications in Wilson's singing. In her Saturday night performance at the Pantages Theatre, for example, a song such as "Guess Who I Saw Today," with its now outdated imagery of a betrayed married woman, was placed in a completely different context. Wilson's manner, thick with irony, immediately contemporized the story, topping it off with the addition of a few pointed lines from Cole Porter's "Miss Otis Regrets" (". . . she pulled a gun . . . and shot him. . . .").

Most of Wilson's set was devoted to material from her current album, "Love, Nancy." Among the highlights were a passionate rendering of Bonnie Raitt's 1991 hit, "I Can't Make You Love Me," and the '70s R&B tune, "Love Won't Let Me Wait." She delivered almost every song with the rhythmic clarity and vocal excellence that have always been essential to her music.

If there was a problem with Wilson's approach, it was a too- prevalent tendency to emphasize attitude over message. Given the crowd-pleasing impact of her persona-stressing techniques--the microphone-waving gimmickry to alter her sound, the yodeling leaps on the ends of lines, the aggressive, no-vibrato climactic phrasing--it may be understandable why Wilson often chooses to work at such a superficial, self-oriented level.

But when she set attitude aside, and dug deeply into the music, Wilson sounded like an entirely different singer--one with the real ability to expand upon the grand tradition of Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae. With 35 years of her own considerable accomplishments, Wilson has every right to do things her own way. But it was hard to hear her sing, in those rare, emotionally vulnerable, musically gripping moments, and not wonder about how much more she may have to offer.

Saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., reviewed at the Hollywood Bowl in September, closed the show.

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