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Nancy Wilson: The Essence of Nancy Wilson: Four Decades of Music

In the book that accompanies The Essence of Nancy Wilson, Capitol’s sublime new salute to one of its most prolific stars, compilation producer David Nathan credits it as the “first-ever box set on the inimitable lady with a song.” Not quite. Six years ago, Capitol went to considerable trouble to assemble the three-disc Wilson collection Ballads, Blues & Big Bands.

The point’s not to chastise Nathan for a factual hiccup, but rather to illustrate that it is the prior existence of the Ballads box that makes Essence so worthwhile. Wilson’s remarkable Capitol catalog, which spanned more than two decades and included over three-dozen albums, never received the reissue respect it deserved, especially in comparison to the CD deluge accorded such labelmates as Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole and Peggy Lee. Career highlights like Wilson’s teamings with Cannonball Adderley and George Shearing resurfaced, but much of the rest was left to languish in the Capitol vaults. Then along came Ballads, which did a serviceable job of setting the record straight. Serviceable, that is, in that it provided a comprehensive, if conservative, survey of her early Capitol years. It was Nancy Wilson 101. 59 album cuts and one single. No curiosities, no surprises, no unreleased tracks. It’s a delicious assortment, no question, but still just meat and potatoes.

As such, it left the door wide open for a savvy producer like Nathan to delve deeper. Of the 81 tracks he’s included on Essence, only one-Wilson’s definitive 1963 recording of Berlin’s “You Can Have Him” (wrongly credited here as from the Strouse-Adams musical Bye Bye Birdie)-is replicated on Ballads. Employing the sort of fan-oriented cleverness that so often distinguishes the best box sets, Nathan has instead chosen to build on the Ballads foundation with four distinctly different, treasure-laden discs. Disc one focuses on singles, blending such big hits as “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am” (oddly not included on Ballads) with intriguing rarities like her 1960 cover of “The Seventh Son.” Disc two opens with 14 live tracks (including a cute, cunning salute to her son, Casey), recorded in Vegas in 1969 for an aborted Nancy Wilson at the Sands project, then segues into a nine-track series of previously unreleased album material. Disc three is devoted to Wilson’s own favorites-22 personal selections that range from a spare, halting “Passion Flower” from her 1959 debut album, Like in Love, to a richly understated “Dindi” from the 1984, Japan-only Godsend. Disc four, filled exclusively with album material, is closest in spirit to the Ballads collection. Nathan has, however, gone to great lengths to ensure that all 18 tracks are new to CD, and has culled a full dozen of them from Wilson’s often overlooked ’70s LPs.

Like toddlers who must walk before they run, Wilson neophytes are advised to invest in Ballads first, then graduate to the more mature and challenging Essence. Together they provide a superb and oft-times surprising appraisal of her dynamic transition from smoky jazz chanteuse to soul diva. Now, if only Columbia would jump on the bandwagon and complete the picture with a thoughtful, multidisc tribute to Wilson’s ’80s and ’90s material.

Originally Published