Nancy Wilson didn’t even have to sing. She simply walked on stage to a sweeping standing ovation that expressed a lifetime of adoration and appreciation. In a canary yellow gown, the stately legend gracefully acknowledged the generous reception for her 70th birthday and a career that has spanned 55 years. “If this is what 70 is all is all about,” quipped guest Nnenna Freelon, “I can’t wait!”
But sing Wilson did. Everything that should be in a voice is still there. She still strives for effects and searches for the dramatic context of a lyric. She continues to reveal a depth of feeling and emotional candor that other singers must envy. After singing some of the same songs for decades, she has added considerable embellishments. Consequently, standard repertoire like “Teach Me Tonight” and the heartbreaking revelation of “Guess Who I Saw Today?” have lost some of their emotional tug. The sense of storytelling has been replaced by flourish. But her bright swinging approach to “Day In-Day Out” and Frank Loesser’s “Never Will I Marry” confirm her jazz roots and her boldly flavorful sense of swing.
Perhaps the most reaching aural pleasure was her poetically restrained take on “God Bless the Child” accompanied by the hymn-like approach of Ramsey Lewis. As a bow to Billie Holiday, Wilson revealed that secret corner of passion of a knowing jazz singer.
Freelon is a lovely heir to the throne. Her singing is bright and pure, sans embellishments. She goes to the core of a lyric with reverent appreciation. The Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and 80-year-old ballad, “If I Had You,” surfaced with studied grandeur.
Other guests included violinist Regina Carter, whose tasteful bit of Ellingtonia set the mood of the concert. Kurt Elling’s rather ill-chosen spin on “Sunny” appeared to be far removed from the mood of the evening. Lewis soloed with John Coltrane’s rambling spiritual, “Dear Lord,” and Herbie Hancock expressed a light, airy approach to Cole Porter’s “I Love You” that brimmed with gentleness. Wilson joined Hancock for “Old Folks,” the classic Willard Robison hymn of front porch wisdom.
After observing that “Miss Nancy really makes you step up to it,” Dianne Reeves stepped up to “Midnight Sun” with a decided sinuousness of conception and a robustness that recalled the former glories of Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald. Wilson coupled with Reeves for a joyous ride on “Happy Talk” The Rodgers-Hammerstein duet seemed to reflect the evening’s vocal message.