Cassandra Wilson goes outside the box

Cassandra Wilson

by Seth Rogovoy

(LENOX, Mass., August 28, 2003) – When Cassandra Wilson’s next album, “Glamoured” (Blue Note), comes out on October 7, the only people who will be surprised by its experiments, including some subtle, hip-hop textures, are those who haven’t been paying attention to Wilson for the last 15 years. For if there is any constant in the jazz vocalist’s career, it is that there are no constants, and that every album and every year brings something new.

“I think you cheat an audience after a while if you continue to do the same thing over and over again,” said Wilson, who headlines Saturday night’s Tanglewood Jazz Festival concert in Ozawa Hall at 8, in a recent phone interview from her New York City apartment.

“If you do the same thing, you’re not really exercising your talent at its full capacity,” said Wilson, who is critically regarded as the greatest contemporary jazz vocalist -- “America’s Best Singer,” according to Time Magazine. “That means that you have to create challenges. You have to get outside the box, always question yourself, how can I fully extend what this is, what this voice is, what this body is supposed to be doing in this moment in this time.”

It is that constant questioning and challenging of herself and her audience that has intrigued critics and listeners for the last decade and a half, ever since Wilson first gained notice as a vocalist in the Brooklyn-based avant-funk movement of the late-1980s. By the mid-1990s, she was surprising audiences with her choice of repertoire and instrumentation, performing old blues songs and jazzy versions of recent songs by contemporary singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan with string- and percussion-laden acoustic ensembles. Anything but the typical “Great American Songbook” performed by a piano trio – although Wilson has done that, too.

But as soon as listeners thought they had the Jackson, Miss., native figured out, she made a right turn, appearing as a vocalist in Wynton Marsalis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Blood on the Fields” album and tour, followed by a tribute to eccentric jazz great Miles Davis.

Her last album, “Belly of the Sun,” was something of a return to the form she pioneered on “Blue Light ‘til Dawn” and “New Moon Daughter,” with songs by Robbie Robertson, Jimmy Webb and James Taylor.

“Glamoured” promises to tinker with that formula. While it includes numbers by Willie Nelson (“Crazy”), Dylan (“Lay Lady Lay”), Sting (“Fragile”) and Muddy Waters (“Honey Bee”), it pairs her for the first time with young Italian guitarist Fabrizio Sotti, best known for his work as a hip-hop producer.

“It’s an interesting kind of experimentation, because rhythmically it’s what normally would be associated with hip-hop, but it’s acoustic instruments playing these types of rhythms,” said Wilson. Other hip-hop textures include the use of multiple voices and samples, although she said much of the album has the pared-down, acoustic feel of her earlier albums. The album features longtime musicians Brandon Ross on guitar and Jeffrey Haynes on percussion joined by bassists Reginald Veal and Calvin Jones, harmonica player Gregoire Maret, and drummers Herlin Riley and Terri Lyne Carrington.

Wilson said that what’s different about her singing today from what it was 10 years ago is that she has “become more focused on getting down to the real emotional intent of a song.”

“I think I’ve become more adept at rendering my interpretation of what’s happening emotionally inside of a piece of music,” she said.

“I like to work on the lyric and deliver the story as best I can, but also to be able to deliver the story through what I do musically in a way that’s going to tell the story without the lyrics – to be able to understand the music and manipulate the notes in a fashion that will give the same effect as the lyric, to tell the story through the sounds as well as through the lyrical content, so that even if you didn’t understand the words you’d be able to get the feeling of the piece from just the notes.”

Wilson’s influences range from bluesmen like Robert Johson and the singer-songwriters to whom she pays tribute like Dylan and Mitchell, to singers like Abbey Lincoln – one of whose songs she recorded for the new album – and Shirley Horn, who was originally scheduled to perform tomorrow but who had to cancel due to illness.

”She’s a brilliant musician and an incredible woman,” said Wilson about Horn. “She’s one of the great ones. She and Abbey Lincoln are genuine national treasures. That kind of real, laid-back, really spare kind of approach is a large part of what I do -- taking your time with the lyric.”

Wilson’s signature style – the roots-music repertoire, the laid-back string band arrangements -- in some way provided the template for the most successful pop album of the past year. Careful listeners will note that former Wilson producer Craig Street created the initial sessions that resulted in the multi-million-selling smash hit, “Come Away With Me” by Wilson’s labelmate, Norah Jones, who appears at the jazz festival on Saturday at 3 in Ozawa Hall for a live taping of Marian McPartland’s public radio program “Piano Jazz”.

“It is a simpler version perhaps of what I’ve been doing,” said Wilson, with no hint of envy or jealousy over Jones’s success, “but I think it does open doors when you sell that many records. A jazz artist is not going to do that. But I think that when people listen to that music, hopefully it opens up their minds toward what it’s really derived from. Perhaps they’ll want to dig deeper.”

Keeping in the tradition of surprising audiences, Wilson will be unveiling a new instrumental lineup tomorrow night. Gone are the guitars and banjos, replaced by piano, an instrument that rarely finds its way into a Cassandra Wilson ensemble.

“It’s a whole new thing for me,” said Wilson. “I haven’t worked with a pianist in a long time. I’m looking forward to that. If you haven’t done it in a long time, you’ve got to work. This kid, Sam Barsh, is really cutting-edge, a very promising young pianist.” Joining Wilson and Barsh are longtime sidemen Lonnie Plaxico on bass and Jeffrey Haynes on percussion.

Also on Saturday night’s program will be pianist Kenny Barron’s Canta Brasil with Trio Da Paz featuring Nilson Matta on bass, Duduka Da Fonseca on drums, and Romero Lubambo on guitar, plus special guest Anne Drummond on flute. Call 888-266-1200 for tickets.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 29, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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