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JAZZ REVIEW

All-star birthday salute

A stellar lineup at the Hollywood Bowl, including standout Natalie Cole, celebrates Nancy Wilson's career.

August 31, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

When Nancy Wilson walked on stage Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl, 70 looked like the new 60, or maybe even 50. Wearing a canary-yellow gown for the opening half of the concert and a vibrant red one in the second half, she was the visual focal point for an evening celebrating her 70th birthday (which was Feb. 20).

A sterling lineup of artists -- mostly singers -- energized the festivities. Veteran vocalist Ernie Andrews opened the show with a characteristically upbeat rendering of "From This Moment On." Kurt Elling displayed his growing versatility with highly personalized takes on "Close Your Eyes" and "My Foolish Heart." And the ever-humorous, ever-talented Patti Austin swung into dynamic versions of "Stairway to Paradise" and "Lady Be Good."

The most engaging guest vocalist spot -- and, in many respects, the most musically captivating portion of the evening -- featured Natalie Cole. Inspired by Wilson's cross-genre career, Cole has taken the jazz and pop combination into new territory, typified in this program by stirring romps through "I'm Going to Laugh You Right Out of My Life" and "Let There Be Love."

The evening was further enhanced by instrumental contributions from violinist Regina Carter, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, saxophonist Tom Scott and the Ramsey Lewis Trio.

Wilson had no intention of watching idly as the all-stars came and went. Touching on various chapters in her career, she recalled her recordings with Cannonball Adderley with a pair of tunes (including "Save Your Love for Me") with Blanchard and Scott, followed by a steamy duet with James Ingram on "Wish You Were Here." She got together with Lewis on "God Bless the Child," added a melodramatic reading of "Guess Who I Saw Today" and wrapped the program with an 11-minute ballad medley.

The warmth of her voice and the intuitive swing of her phrasing showed her to be in rare form. And, in passages in which she omitted the yodel-like yelp at the end of phrases that has now become a too-common characteristic, Wilson's singing was a sterling display of contemporary jazz vocalizing.

Neither she nor the other singers were helped much, however, by the sound mix. As so often happens at the Bowl, the spirited playing of a big jazz band was distorted by amplification that placed the bass and piano at volume levels above the combined sound of the 13 horn players. Arsenio Hall's stint as master of ceremonies was more intrusive than entertaining, hitting bottom with an inexplicable (for this program) descent into adolescent bathroom humor.

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