Since I mentioned Enjoy the Music.com should have a review of Cassandra Wilson several years ago, you have probably been waiting patiently for her review! Now, with temperatures in Florida so low that even New Yorkers are driving like molasses in January (which it is), and me huddled inside with a cup of green tea, now is the time to rectify that error.
A Mississippi native, Wilson has some of the finest pipes in the music industry today. I rank her right up there with other incredible songbirds like Amanda McBroom, Diana Krall, Patricia Barber, Allison Krauss, Linda Ronstadt, Delores O' Riordan and K.D. Lang for strength of delivery and purity. Her discs, while not in my reference stack, remain in heavy rotation in my player. Her voice is one of those translucent crystals by which to judge superior home movie and music reproduction systems.
Of the outstanding female vocal giants, Wilson is closest to the torchy Billie Holliday, Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman in tone and sincerity, but blended with some Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McCrae. Among young jazz singers with a mellow, flexible, dark-toned contralto voice that can harden to an edge on rock material, Wilson stretches, bends pitch, elongates syllables, and manipulates her tone and timbre from dusky to hollow. Even with her golden dreadlocks, she neither resembles nor sounds as light or as airy as Mariah Carey or Toni Braxton. She is powerful, yes, but she is not the technical virtuoso of Sarah Brightman. Picture instead Chapman or Nina Simone doing funky Patricia Barber material. (A duet or trio with any of the above would be wonderful to hear.)
Wilson has two decades of production, but I have heard only two of her discs, Traveling Miles and New Moon Daughter:
Signing with Blue Note records in 1993 marked a crucial breakthrough to audiences for Wilson. Blue Note producer Craig Street's work with Norah Jones won her eight Grammy awards. With pop production techniques, he creates created a rich ambient environment around to magnify Wilson's remarkable voice. Street provides sonic depth with sparse, but incredibly vivid, arrangements using steel guitar, violin, accordion and percussion.
New Moon Daughter won the 1996 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance and remains one of her most popular albums. It courageously mixes soul, jazz, folk, blues and pop styles. Wilsonadopted songs as diverse as Robert Johnson's "Come On in My Kitchen," Joni Mitchell's "Black Crow," The Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville," and Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
With its pared-down, sometimes spooky arrangements, the disc does not sound like a traditional jazz outing, nor does it suggest a dance-floor agenda. Instead, the sound is spare and low-tech. Acoustic guitar and percussion, with occasional dabs of cornet or pedal steel - calculated to spotlight Wilson's sensuous, swooping delivery - dominate the simple arrangements. New Moon Daughter opts for a raw, unvarnished sound, going so far as to record in a barn in upstate New York.
The singer and her producer range far a-field in search of unorthodox material. "Strange Fruit," a darkly compelling rendition of one of the most poignant poems ever written, weighs heavy on the album.
Here, Holiday's gruesome song about Negro lynching finds chilling sorrow with Wilson's evocative delivery. The 1939 classic strikes a discordant note on the first listen and stops the disc's otherwise charming rhythm on successive spins.
On the album, Wilson pulls one from the U2 songbook with "Love Is Blindness." She covers "Harvest Moon," in time for a revival of Neil Young's career. A fiddle juices Wilson's version of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" along.
Williams' tunes have not gone too far away. Yet Wilson's charming cover of the Monkees' long forgotten "Last Train to Clarksville" should have revived the tune, if not the group. The drummer snaps out the beat, contending with a wicked undertow of electric guitar. Wilson scats briefly on the refrain, reminding us of her jazz pedigree.
New Moon Daughter is not mainstream traditional jazz. It demonstrates that Wilson's kind of fusion has less to do with funk than with folk and back-porch blues. Her ethereal yet husky singing is as elegant as ever, full of subtle asides and half-utterances. It is subdued, due perhaps to the melancholy flavor of her material.
Miles Dewey Davis III was a trumpeter, bandleader and composer widely considered one of the most influential American jazz musicians of the 20th century. His music helped define generations of jazz. Therefore, Wilson's tribute to Davis, Traveling Miles, has more traditional, classic jazz sound than New Moon Daughter.
Wilson sneaks in a sad, slow rendition of one of Cyndi Lauper's two hits, "Time After Time," returning to her silky smooth roots, onto the disc. And her "Right Here, Right Now" is folk/pop like Armatrading or Chapman. Yet this simple set of tunes is more melancholy than the '96 Grammy-grabber.
On Traveling Miles, Wilson shares husky interpretations with Holiday control, but without the showy drama, Krall imbibes in her modern remakes of 40s and 50s classics. She is more subtle and subdued. More like Patricia Barber. So much like Barber in fact, that I quickly double-checked to make sure I was listening to Wilson, not Barber.
If you like the songbirds mentioned in the second and third paragraphs above, you will appreciate Cassandra Wilson's voice and should check her out. If you prefer your jazz more conventional, like a smoky Krall, then consider Traveling Miles. If the antics of Patricia Barber grab you, go for the unconventional New Moon Daughter.