On an unusually warm winter evening, a sold-out audience came to the Cameron Art Museum for a most relaxing concert. They basked in the “jazz poetry” interpretations that vocalist  Willie Atkinson gave to mostly swing era standards. He was ably accompanied by his Transitional Jazz Trio – bassist Doug Irving, pianist Gerald Shynett and percussionist Michael Hanson who, interestingly, played mostly conga drums rather than the conventional jazz drum set. This was particularly fitting on the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer classic “That Old Black Magic” which often features a Latin beat but was originally written as a swing tune. Atkinson’s poetic bent was nicely evident on another Johnny Mercer song “Skylark” (music by Hoagy Carmichael) that was originally written for his friend the legendary Judy Garland. A particularly moving rendition of “Nature Boy” concluded the first set; the tune was written by George Aberle, also known as eden abez (lower case intended) for Nat King Cole.

Atkinson’s bent in the concert certainly lent towards the soulful ballad, and he clearly is a master of this genre. He demonstrated his talent most elegantly on a piece appropriately entitled “Loving You (Jacqueline’s Song)” that he wrote for his wife, who was in the audience, on the occasion of their recent 50th anniversary. The second and last set consisted mainly of ballads; the exception was a relatively up-tempo version of the classic swing piece “September in the Rain” composed by Harry Warren and Al Dubin in 1937. While there have been more than 60 recordings of this piece, Atkinson chose to focus on Dinah Washington’s expressive version and her last big hit with the song in 1961.

It is worth noting that Willie Atkinson is a native North Carolinian and having absorbed a good deal of the Piedmont Blues, he moved to Northern California to practice his art on the jazz and blues circuit for a few years. Having been inspired by the talents of many of the great touring artists of the day, he decided to return to live and work in Eastern North Carolina in 1995. He certainly inspired the audience to standing ovations at this concert!