We saw Nancy Wilson and Ramsey Lewis in San Francisco last night. Nancy does
this jazz show on NPR that I used to hear on my drive home … swear to God
the first time I heard her say "This is Nancy Wilson…" I thought,
"Wow, that sister from Heart is a jazz singer now." Sorry, she’s the
only Nancy Wilson I’d ever heard of growing up in the ’70s listening to Album
Rock Radio.

I suppose I went to school with kids who had heard of the real Nancy Wilson,
the one onstage at the Masonic Auditorium last night. If so they should’ve passed
the word around … not that we’d have listened to them, but at least they’d
have the comfort today of knowing they were listening the right one — who should’ve
covered a silky version of "Crazy on You" to score some irony points
with the few of us who’d have gotten the joke.

I have about a dozen jazz albums, most of them Legends: Charlie Parker, Miles
Davis, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, Chet Baker, Oscar Peterson.
Of the bunch I like Oscar the best, because he plays with this bluesy groove
the feels the most like Rock ‘n’ Roll when he’s really cooking. My knowledge
of jazz limited to my exposure to these LDGs — Legendary Dead Guys — and I
know zilch about the music of Nancy & Ramsey. I picked them out because
I knew they were big names among living musicians, and I needed something to
do on my birthday that would not leave Melissa deaf, because she needs her hearing
to be able to respond when I say, "honey, could you grab me a beer outa
the fridge?" See, this is why guys secretly crave rock ‘n’ roll: they want
their hearing to be shot so they’ll have an excuse for not listening to their

Anyway, this is what I remember: The show opens with Nancy and Ramsey walking
to the front of the stage. If you know Nancy was born in 1937, your brain screams
that she has absolutely no business wearing that slinky black floor-length gown
with the plunging neckline. She may be eligible for full Social Security Benefits,
but boys I’m here to tell you, the woman looks great in that getup. How can
she have acquired so many years and so few lumps? Amazing. Oh yeah, then she
started singing.

She opens with "Moondance," the song Van Morrison made famous. She doesn’t
bring anything new or inspiring to the song… she has a lovely, powerful voice
but doesn’t show it off here. Obviously she’s warming up her vocal chords and
the crowd with some easy stuff to get us in the mood. She has her own keyboard
player, so Ramsey sits at his grand piano doing a few finger rolls and looking
as if he they don’t pay him enough to play Van Morrison songs. But as I said,
it’s a warmup.

During the first couple songs, the bass player — who’s thumbing a standup
bass — keeps trying to steal the spotlight by playing these really intricate
solos. I’m trying to enjoy the show but I can’t stop thinking, "why the
hell doesn’t this guy understand that a bass was not meant to play solos?"
I mean, drum solos are bad enough, but bass solos — fingers pounding strings
in the vain hope of sounding as cool as a saxophone — are generally insufferable.
This guy is no different: He’s really, really good but he’s starting to annoys
the crap out of me. I want him to get back to playing rhythm, and when he does,
everything is fine.

Nancy departs the stage to polite applause after a few songs, and now it’s
time for Ramsey to show us his stuff. Some of the LDGs in my collection are
what I’d call hardcore — Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker — geniuses
who are absolutely uncompromising. If you enjoy their work it’s because you
can appreciate greatness; they played however they damn well pleased. Ramsey
Lewis is a born crowd-pleaser, so he’s not hardcore. He has chops, though; I’d
call him smoothcore. The first song is a rousing, grooving number that brings
thunderous applause … easily 50 percent louder than the thanks we bestowed
on Nancy. Ramsey isn’t just working the keyboards, he’s working the room.

After about three or four songs (they seemed to run together), Ramsey and his
bassist and drummer start playing another jumping tune that the crowd wants
to clap along to. Except the guys keep changing the tempo and frustrating such
attempts. It’s a fun jazz tune, with moments where Ramsey slows to a complete
silence, then tears off in some new direction. Towards the end of one of these
diversions, I notice the bass player has picked up a bow. The music stops for
a second, then the next thing we hear is the low, tender moan of a bow being
dragged over strings. Sort of like a cello solo, but way deeper. The effect
is stunning — the bass violin seems to have its own voice, and it’s singing
its own tune. Almost brought tears to my eyes. The solo lasts a few minutes,
the stops, and the trio blasts off in another direction, this time with an even,
solid tempo that allows the crowd to clap along. When it’s over, the crowd is
thundering and I’m thinking: I could go home now, that’s one of the must riveting
things I’ve ever experienced.

Turns out that’s the end of Ramsey’s set and it’s time for Nancy to come back
out. Now she’s wearing a floor-length red dress, minus the low neckline. She
still looks marvelous. Here’s where I wish I had more of a taste for vocal jazz
— Nancy’s got great pipes and incredible stage charisma. She talks about her
life as a musician between songs of heartbreak and loss, and I can’t help wondering
if the guys in her own band were the ones who put her through all that. She
sings it like she’s lived it, and the crowd eats it up.

My problem is that my tiny idea of jazz is a piano, a saxophone, a trumpet
making sounds that are beyond words. Adding a singer subtracts the musicians
and takes that mystery away. When Nancy sings I feel her pain and recognize
her talent — yeah, she’s the real deal among jazz singers. But I don’t get
that sense of wow that happens when a jazz combo is really pounding it. Nancy
doesn’t move me like that, but it’s still entertaining to see a pro in action.
She has grace, poise, class, and she’s sexy beyond her years.

And when it was over my ears weren’t ringing.