After cutting an acknowledged jazz classic, 1962’s Nancy WilsonCannonball Adderley, Nancy Wilson went her own way, refusing to be pigeonholed as a jazz vocalist. Working with top arrangers like Billy May, Oliver Nelson and Jimmy Jones, Wilson released more than 30 albums of first-rate pop and R&B material throughout the ‘60s for Capitol. After signing with Columbia in the early ’80s, however, Wilson switched gears again, moving back toward a more jazz-oriented style. So, is Nancy Wilson a jazz singer? A pop singer? An R&B vocalist? Truth is, she‘s been all of these and more in her 40-plus-year career — or none of them, as Wilson recently told the Weekly by telephone from her Hermosa Beach residence.
L.A. WEEKLY:Although you’re often labeled a jazz singer, you never refer to yourself in that way. You prefer ”song stylist.“
NANCY WILSON: Well, I just sing songs. I don‘t think about whether it’s jazz or pop or R&B. I just take a ballad and the lyric and sing it. I mean, at 18, it never occurred to me whether this was jazz or pop, because we didn‘t have all these damn labels.
One of the first things I ever heard you sing was the Oliver Nelson arrangement of ”Call Me,“ from A Touch of Today. Now, ”Call Me“ is not specifically a jazz song, but the way you swing it, you make it completely your own.
That to me is what it’s about. It‘s not about a label, it’s about, ”Oh, I like this song. I wanna sing it.“
I know you started very early and were singing in church, but I‘ve never read about any musical training.
There wasn’t any. I think my parents took me to a vocal teacher when I was maybe 8. But they said I was too young, that my voice would change. And that was the end of that.
Did you start out by patterning yourself after other singers?
Not consciously. I know I sound like ”Little“ Jimmy Scott. I was a kid then, and I heard him a lot. I loved the way he bent words. It gave the words great meaning.
I‘m hoping we can make the jazz purists happy for a minute and talk about that early album of yours with Cannonball Adderley.
Oh, that was a piece of cake. We just went in one day and did it — of course, we chose the material beforehand. We had some lead sheets, some key-to-keys, just a sketch for the beginnings and the endings. The songs were easy to choose. Oh, we had fun. We were very good friends.
It’s still very apparent on the record.
I really like the spirit of that record. They were just great musicians, just to hear them play. We traveled a lot with that album. I had my trio and they had their quintet, and they would always come out, Cannon and Nat, and we would do those songs.
You had the great Ben Webster on Something Wonderful — it‘s always so lovely to hear him.
Isn’t it? That big ol‘ sound. Of course, at that time, you knew who you wanted. You thought, ”Wow, this is wonderful. The sound. The tonal qualities.“ You know, the depth there — these horns, these musicians — they sounded like they were singing.
And even around this time there was grousing in jazz quarters that you were singing a lot of material that wasn’t strictly ”jazz.“
I had to be who I was. Like in Love was not jazz; Something Wonderful was not jazz. There were really only two jazz albums — out of 60, you understand. Most of what I sang was the pop of the day. You know, as I stop and look back on it, you do what you do, and you do what you do best. I just sang the songs that I liked.
Your trio [pianist Llew Matthews, drummer Roy McCurdy and bassist John Williams] has been a team for some years now. Do you find that has an effect on how you work?
Yes. It‘s so nice to have a trio you can trust. Musically, and the fact that they’ll be there on time. Roy and I have been together for 25 years, so, you know, it just is. He‘s a great drummer, the best. And after 20 years, John B. — we just know each other. Llew is relatively new, he’s only been there maybe 14 years.
Only 14 years . . . Is he showing up on time?
Always. There‘s no such thing as late.
So what are you singing these days? What can we expect at the festival?
Oh, standards . . . I really haven’t thought about the running order of the show. We know each other — we‘ll just sing whatever feels right that day.
Nancy Wilson performs at the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday, June 16.