by Jen Eide
Jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson is such a powerful talent that each new release always seems like an event. She has earned an important place in the history of jazz and will leave a threefold legacy: she has redefined the American songbook; introduced a new tonal palette by choosing non-traditional instrumentation; and integrated new musical influences, so much so, that jazz--for this generation, at least--has remained a living, breathing medium.
Wilson's career has had an interesting trajectory. After turns with Henry Threadgill's free jazz group New Air and Steve Coleman's funky M-BASE collective, she embarked on a solo career. The work that first made everyone sit up and take notice was 1988's Blue Skies, a gorgeous album of standards in which Wilson was backed by a rather traditional sounding piano trio and found her vocally working through the legacy of Betty Carter. And if Carter was an iconoclast in the sense of exalting individuality above all, Wilson finally found her own style with 1993's pioneering album Blue Light 'Til Dawn, in which she jettisoned much of what a certain segment of the jazz listening audience would consider the things most essential to the medium--the instrumentation and the songbook.
In ensuing years, Wilson reimagined and reinvented the American songbook by drawing from different genres--blues, country, soul and rock music--to include a place for "non-jazz" artists such as Robert Johnson, Hank Williams Sr., Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Wilson's ambitions have been unprecedented in their success. We've all had the misfortune of hearing an atrocious interpretation of a pop song by a jazz giant before--you can almost hear the producer suggesting a current hit in an effort to crossover to a mainstream audience--there's simply no depth to it. But Wilson brings the depth, perhaps because pop songs are ingrained in her consciousness having grown up with them. (For the opposite effect, reference Steve's post on Scarlett Johansson's attempt at singing a jazz standard).
As a bandleader and an arranger, Wilson has also made some interesting choices by replacing the piano trio with dual guitars, a bass player, and dual percussionists. Now, guitarists accompanying jazz singers is not unprecedented--indeed, Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass--but slide guitarists and pedal steel players are a recent innovation. Wilson will also occasionally add a single violin, a clarinet, a piano or an accordion player here and there for additional color, or she may strip away layers of texture by singing accompanied only by a single slide guitarist, for example, like on the swampy and desolate sounding version of Ann Peebles soul classic "I Can't Stand The Rain" (the final track on Blue Light 'Til Dawn). The style is now earthy, organic and occasionally delicate--still rooted in jazz harmonies and swing, but also no longer your traditional hardbop romp.
Yet variety is Wilson's strong suit, and this year's release Loverly finds her re-exploring the traditional jazz songbook while integrating it with her unique style and sound. By straddling both the past and future of jazz, she has created an album that will simultaneously please both of her fanbases and raise the bar for jazz vocalists in general.
As usual, Wilson has assembled a stellar band. Listening to the interplay between guitarist Marvin Sewell and pianist Jason Moran is indeed a delight, especially on the opening track "Lover Come Back to Me" where they dart around bounce ideas off each other like mad, all the while providing a solid accompiament to Wilson's vocals. Their wild flights are grounded by stalwart bassist Lonnie Plaxico.
"Gone With The Wind" has a sultry vocal that floats over currents of air churned up by the stellar percussion team of Herlin Riley and Lekan Babalola. With this recording, Wilson has (in my book) surpassed Ella Fitzgerald in what I had previously thought of as the definitive version, but now seems to me to be an overly sincere reading.
Wilson strips away the band for a duet with guitarist Marvin Sewell on "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most." This often overlooked tune has a languid delivery would leave me downright depressed if the tune weren't so damn beautiful.
"Caravan" begins with a funky but somehow subdued single note piano riff--that always makes me think of guitar lines in James Brown songs--before it takes off into the complexities of latin styled flurries of arpeggios. Again, the interplay between Sewell and Moran here is an amazing feat, and Moran plays some really outside lines that keep this often played Ellington tune sounding as vital as ever.
Loverly is such a solid album that it's hard to pick just one standout track, but that honor has got to go to Wilson's interpretation of "St. James Infirmary." This version is so remote from Cab Calloway's famed original--with its unrelentlessly funky guitar part and breezy vocal delivery--that it will have you dancing about, well, wherever you may find yourself when you hear the tune, quickly forgetting that this was once a sad tale of someone dying of tuberculosis.
What an outstanding effort. One can only wonder what Wilson will have in store for us next time.
Monday, November 10, 2008
by Jen Eide