Sunny Wilkinson Sings “Into the Light”

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INTO THE LIGHT / WILKINSON-LYNCH: Into the Light (One for Mogie). TAYLOR: Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight. T. COHAN: Highwire. POTTER-COREA: Crystal Silence. WILKINSON-BERG: Friday Night at the Cadillac Club. JOBIM: Corcovado. WILKINSON-NEWMAN: Waltz for KB. Gentle Time. You and I. R. NEWMAN: Electron Dance. GENTRY: Ode to Billie Joe. J. MITCHELL: Big Yellow Taxi. SONDHEIM? Not While I’m Around / Sunny Wilkinson, voc; Ron Newman, pn; Ed Fedewa, bs; Larry Ochiltree, dm / Sunchance Records (no number)

This is the latest CD by jazz singer Sunny Wilkinson, whose career seems to have taken place in the Midwest and West Coast. The daughter of a Methodist minister, she grew up in Minnesota singing in church before learning to play the trombone (!) in the fourth grade. She continued to both sing and play into her college years, performing in a band styled after Blood, Sweat and Tears. She later played in the Arizona State University band, where she was first exposed to jazz. She has been married for 25 years fo jazz pianist Ron Newman, who plays on this disc.

In the promo material accompanying this CD, Wilkinson purports that this CD is “all about family—not just Wilkinson’s immediate family, but her extended musical family as well.” The opening song, Into the Light (One for Mogie) is one of those modern-style jazz tunes with an ambiguous melody and rhythm (at least until she reaches the scat section, where she switches to a straight 4) as well as somewhat obscure lyrics—but it works as music. Wilkinson differs from a great many “lounge lizard” type singers in that she has a good rhythmic drive to her voice and, within her ability, a good command of range, able to scat into her high range with ease. She also has an acute rhythmic sense that makes her a pleasure to listen to. Without question, it is the second half of this song, most of it in scat (often with her husband echoing her phrases at the piano), that most impresses the listener. One can appreciate her considerable ability as a jazz singer without becoming involved in the lyrics, which she tosses off witn insouciance.

This is not entirely true of the second song, James Taylor’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight. Her delivery is circumscribed in part by the nature of the song itself, one of the maudlin tunes Taylor did ad infinitum during the 1970s and ‘80s. (Sorry, I always hated him and his songs…full of “feel sorry for me” BS. So you’re lonely tonight. Lots of people are. Man up and get over it.) But she does transform the actual music by her excellent sense of jazz time. Tony Cohan’s Highwire, though also a ballad of sorts, comes across much better because it’s a jazz ballad with a solo line by Chick Corea. Judging from this track, Wilkinson would fit in very well if Corea ever chose to re-form Return to Forever, his great acoustic band of the early 1970s, although Newman’s piano solo is more along the lines of West Coast style pianists like Russ Freeman—good, but different in feel. Wilkinson also extends her range upward in this one.

Appropriately, this is followed by a song written by Corea himself with Neville Potter, Crystal Silence. Here, with the tempo slowed way down, the focus is indeed more on the lyrics although this one is dangerously close to lounge lizard material. Far better is her original song, written to a line by Bob Berg, Friday Night at the Cadillac Club. Wilkinson tosses off double-time licks with impunity, Newman plays a tasty solo, and the whole thing swings joyfully. Drummer Ochiltree also gets a cute solo in this one. (Wilkinson also shows a flair here for singing triplets in jazz time, perhaps influenced in part by the late Jon Hendricks’ style.)

She also gives us a very interesting take on Jobim’s classic Corcovado. Normally sung in English as Quiet Nights and Quiet Stars, she opts for the original Portuguese lyrics instead, subtly shifting the rhythm to a more irregular meter that sounds nothing like bossa nova but is far trickier to sing. She does a remarkable job, and Newman’s laid-back solo fits in nicely. Newman’s Waltz for KB was written for their son Kevin Bradley Newman, with somewhat sentimental lyrics. A Gentle Time, written for her other son Christopher, is more humorous if a bit touchy-feely, and swings more. You and I is a description of a relaxed kissy-face Sunday morning. I can’t relate. I have too much work to do on Sunday mornings.

Electron Dance sets a wordless vocal to a quirky but swinging line written by Newman. This is surely one of the album’s great highlights, showing off Wilkinson’s chops as well as her ability to slip into a bit of growl tone in her lower range. Newman’s solo, again Russ Freeman-like, is crisp, clear and rhythmically acute. In one chorus he just feeds chords while Ochiltree plays exuberantly behind him, with Wilkinson coming back in near the end. Brava!

I dreaded the arrival of Ode to Billie Joe, Bobbie Gentry’s maudlin Southern suicide song of the 1960s. Wilkinson makes the music sound a shade better than it deserves, and she certainly has a better voice than Gentry, but the lyrics are what they are. Much better as both material and a performance is Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, although only one line in the song mentions a taxi. Newman and Wilkinson completely rewrite the music, particularly in terms of rhythm but also by deconstructing the melodic line and putting it back together in short jazz phrases. In the end, it sounds more like a blues tune than a folk-rock one. Bassist Ed Fedewa finally gets a solo in this one, and it’s a jaunty one full of short leaping figures.

The album wraps up with Stephen Sondheim’s Not While I’m Around, a somewhat innocuous ballad, again transformed musically into something somewhat more swinging. There is no question but that Wilkinson is a very talented singer, and more than half of this album shows her to her best advantage.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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