The Greatest Pretender

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SINGERS The Greatest Pretender "File Under: Wilson, Female Vocal" advises the fine print on Nancy Wilson's newest album, Today, Tomorrow, Forever. A timely cross reference might be added: "See Fitzgerald, Ella, Heir Apparent To."

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The files under Female Vocal are bulging with singers who were once likely pretenders to the "First Lady of Song" title held these many years by the incomparable Ella. At 27, with three LPs high on the bestseller charts and a rapidly burgeoning following, Nancy Wilson figures to be the greatest pretender for a long time to come. At her opening at Los Angeles' Coconut Grove last week, the crowd of 1,000 voted her everything but the deed and title to the place.

In the "great tradition" of blues, torch and jazz singers that began with Billie Holiday, Nancy Wilson leans toward the left wing, where pop meets jazz, a translator of popular standards into the jazz idiom. Her repertory is a treatise on variety and taste, spun by a voice of agile grace and knowing jazz inflection and phrasing. Yet heard in person, she poses a problem. Willowy, tawny, perfectly featured and somehow kissed by ice, she seems sometimes too beautiful for the consistently fey interpretation she gives to the lyrics of her songs.

But she has come a long way in a very short time, and very likely will be nonpareil in a few more years. The daughter of a factory worker, she was born in Chillicothe, Ohio, had her own local television program in Columbus by the time she was 15, singing pop tunes by telephone request. Four years later, she joined Rusty Bryant's band, toured with it for 21 years. But it was not until Saxophonist Cannonball Adderley introduced her to the New York jazz scene that she scrapped her scooby-dooing gimmickry for her present artfully derivative jazz style. She is, all at once, both cool and sweet, both singer and storyteller. These attributes should be enough to sustain her to the day when, if ever, the First Lady decides to step down.

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