George Shearing Quintet with Nancy Wilson – The Swingin's Mutual (1961)

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George Shearing, the sightless bebop-influenced pianist best known for the 1952 jazz standard “Lullaby of Birdland,” died today of congestive heart failure at age 91. Here’s a look back at a favorite Shearing release, done alongside singer Nancy Wilson …

by Nick DeRiso

One of the smartest things Nancy Wilson ever did was start singing at the Blue Morocco in New York City, just after she blew in from Columbus, Ohio.

In was there, while Wilson still had her day job, that John Levy caught this smoking-hot 20-something’s act. Levy, once a bassist with George Shearing, went on to manage his former boss, as well as Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and — after that night — Ms. Wilson.

The Swingin’s Mutual would become the first of three stunning records in a row that found Wilson appearing alongside those other two Levy clients. (Later reissues also included enough extra instrumentals to make this release a kind of primer on Shearing’s stuff, too.)

These aren’t her first albums — Wilson’s Like Love and Something Wonderful, both from 1960, included the sympathetic backing of Billy May and his orchestra — but they are, nonetheless, definitive. It took some guts, by the early 1960s, to debut in the jazz idiom. And Wilson did it with a flourish. (Of course, the irony is that Wilson has now gone very nearly completely pop. But that’s another review.)

From the noodling version of “Lullaby of Birdland” by the Shearing quintet to Wilson’s chirpy “Let’s Live Again,” these sessions were as sunny and romantically hopeful as the followup Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley could be moody and darkly foreboding. Hello Young Lovers, the third in this terrific trilogy, would find Wilson taking yet another sharp turn — this time, with Shearing doing string arrangements on a disc of timeless classics.

The Swingin’s Mutual inhabits the neutral ground in between, making it a great place to start. There is an immediacy to this record that hasn’t dimmed over the ensuing decades. Wilson trips through “On Green Dolphin Street” with an enthusiasm that made it seem like she and Shearing were writing it as they went. “The Things We Did Last Summer” had just the right breezy touch.

Throughout, Wilson’s voice — eager, thoughtful and true — expertly weaved into Shearing’s work. It’s notable, though, that she did it on this record (as opposed to the Addlerley follow up) without the overt blues influences that defined early idol Dinah Washington. Her enunciation could be as pitch-perfect as a Broadway veteran.

Shearing, an underrated genius in the cool, West Coast style, neatly presupposed his final incarnations — first in the 1970s with Mel Torme, then on a series of solo and duo recordings. Listening now, Shearing charms again as one of jazz’s most urbane, unflappable and witty pianists.

Meanwhile Wilson is, by turns, graceful and bouyant — first seductive chanteuse and then happy-go-lucky. She sets the stage for what came next with this timelessly charming record, and Shearing matches her stride for stride.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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