Faculty Recording: Into the Light

Vocalist Sunny Wilkinson with compositons from Ron Newman


Into the Light, the newest CD by veteran jazz vocalist Sunny Wilkinson, is all about family — not just Wilkinson’s immediate family, but her extended musical family as well. It comprises a stylistic mix of tunes that resonate with Wilkinson because of the stories they tell. The CD features Wilkinson’s crystalline voice and impressive ability to convey the heart of a lyric with unadorned honesty. The personal nature of the music on this CD is enhanced by five pieces that have original lyrics written by Wilkinson. Three of these tunes were composed by Wilkinson’s husband, Ron Newman.

Newman, who plays piano on the CD, co-produced the project, and wrote and arranged many of the selections, is a top-notch jazz pianist, composer, and arranger, as well as a highly respected educator. According to Wilkinson, “Ron and I have been married for 25 years and have been growing together musically since we joined forces. He’s a beautiful pianist, harmonically nuanced and adventurous, but slightly quirky and very attentive to my singing style.”

Bass player Ed Fedewa and drummer Larry Ochiltree are not only stellar musicians, they’re also a big part of Wilkinson’s extended musical family. Fedewa is an instructor of jazz and electric bass at Central Michigan University, as well as the principal bassist for the Lansing Symphony. Ochiltree is professor of jazz at Hillsdale College, and has played drums for Maynard Ferguson, Phil Woods, and Tony Bennett, among others. Over the years, Wilkinson has performed in concert with The Count Basie Orchestra, Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass, Clark Terry, Mark Murphy, Milt Hinton, and Curtis Fuller, among others. In recent years, she has been playing with both her own quartet and with Rodney Whitaker, Etienne Charles, and Randy Gillespie, all professors of jazz at Michigan State University, where she was an assistant professor of jazz studies for 18 years. Wilkinson is now an Artist in Residence at the University of Michigan and adjunct faculty at Western Michigan University.

Wilkinson’s life has been well lived among family, friends, and students, and focused always on music. The songs on Into the Light reflect, in various ways, her experiences and views on love, life, and relationships. The lyrics she wrote for the title tune, based on a composition by Brian Lynch called “One for Mogie,” embody the theme for the CD, which is that life is often fraught with challenges and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, but strength and perseverance can deliver you “Into the Light,” where “wisdom and beauty abound.”

Indeed, the love for family and the serenity and joy it brings her permeate the CD, especially in the compositions written by Wilkinson and Newman. “Waltz for KB” is a gentle, lilting love song she and Ron co-wrote for her step-son Kevin, who fully embraced her as a family member when she first came into his life. “Gentle Time” is a tribute to her other son, Christopher, and “You and I” is a paean to her marriage to Newman, with lovely lyrics like “Supper Time Slips Away / Children Grown Up And / Off On Their Way / Your Hand Warm And Sweet / Touches Mine Valentine / Always You And I.”

Family and friends are woven throughout the music, even on tunes for which she didn’t write the lyrics. Wilkinson is a big fan of James Taylor and was thrilled to have the opportunity to sing “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” to an arrangement written by her talented nephew, Sean Hill. “High Wire” is a tribute to a departed old college friend, Charles Argersinger, who wrote the soaring soli line, and “Big Yellow Taxi” was arranged by Ellen Rowe, a dear friend and musical and educational compatriot.

Whether singing an intimate rendition of “Crystal Silence” or a fast paced, bopping scat number like “Electron Dance,” Wilkinson never hits a false or extraneous note. Her silky, warm voice, emotional honesty, and thoughtful approach to lyrics are the hallmarks of an experienced artist at the peak of her powers. Newly signed with booking agency and management company Smokin’ Sleddog Records, Wilkinson will support the release of Into the Light with live performances in the Midwest.

To learn more about Sunny Wilkinson, vist her website or follow her on facebook.

Available as a CD or download at CDBaby.

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