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7 minute read
Christopher John Farley

HOW MANY SINGERS EVOKE Egyptian pharaohs and Memphis blues in the same love song? At a concert a few months ago at St. Ann & Holy Trinity’s Church in Brooklyn, New York, jazz singer Cassandra Wilson did just that. Standing center stage in the semidarkness, brushing back her honey-colored dreadlocks, her eyes half closed, she sang a song she wrote that, at first, seemed to be a smooth number about love and longing in Memphis, Tennessee, home of the Delta blues. “Oh won’t you carry me back to Memphis,” she sang, her limber contralto lingering on every line, caressing each note before letting go. But listen closer: “History had been arranged/to hide us from our secret names… with the sweet complexion of a pharaoh/dark as a delta night…” The song was about more than simple sweet love, it was about building a relationship based on a shared sense of cultural history, transporting listeners from the American South to the ancient capital of Memphis, Egypt. Quite a feat–and that same night she had an even more unlikely triumph with a jazz remake of Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.

Versatility becomes Wilson. On her latest CD, New Moon Daughter, Wilson covers songs by the Irish megaband U2, rocker Neil Young and the goofy TV pop group The Monkees. The album marks a new high point for the 40-year-old Wilson, who over the past two decades has become America’s most important and daring jazz vocalist. Her voice has the heavy, rolling darkness of a storm cloud, but Wilson isn’t given to flashy lightning vocals. She finds emotion in restraint–her voice murmurs low like distant thunder, or strikes a brief, bright note, like sunlight after rain. Wilson’s 1988 album Blue Skies, a provocatively postmodern yet warmly reverent take on standards like Shall We Dance, was the top-selling jazz album of 1989; her 1993 album Blue Light ‘Til Dawn, which featured a cultured, entrancing, neo-jazz sound–unexpectedly bare arrangements with bits of folk and blues thrown in–sold more than 250,000 copies, four times as many as most successful jazz albums.

New Moon Daughter, however, stands as Wilson’s most emotionally rewarding album, a mellow but challenging crescendo of themes from her past work. Jazz has a long history of remaking pop songs, and Wilson has for several years displayed a genius for jazz synthesis. On Blue Light ‘Til Dawn she covered songs by blues great Robert Johnson (Come On in My Kitchen) and Irish songwriter Van Morrison (Tupelo Honey) with great success. Those were fine individual songs, but with New Moon Daughter Wilson has made a great album, full of tunes that work collectively as well as separately–it’s the difference between having a look and having a vision. Her songs are still varied, but thanks to her thoughtful vocals and producer Craig Street’s atmospheric arraying of accordions, bongos and other instruments, they all share a unifying musical sensibility–a bluesy, folksy Afrocentricity that’s sweet enough to be called pop but cerebral enough to deserve to be called jazz. She’s found her sound. Says Wilson: “There’s no such thing necessarily as a folk song or a pop song, it’s how you do it. What it is is not as important as how you do it and why you do it. You bend time and space in your own way.”

Many of the songs on New Moon Daughter are enchantingly bent. A successful interpretation of a previously recorded song needn’t surpass the original–as Aretha Franklin’s Respect surpassed Otis Redding’s–but it should at least add something fresh and interesting. In any case, Wilson’s interpretations usually succeed on both counts. Her cover of U2’s techno-ambient song Love Is Blindness is warmer and folksier than the original, and her phrasing is more intimate and detailed; Wilson’s version of Williams’ ploddingly effective country ballad I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry is lush and emotional and boasts some winning flourishes, including a gorgeous violin solo. And while Wilson’s cover of the anti-lynching standard Strange Fruit doesn’t outdo Billie Holiday’s wonderfully jagged 1956 version–that last brokenhearted note Holiday hits is a killer–Wilson’s take has a numb, phantasmal horror to it that’s hard to shake.

Wilson has grown not only as an interpreter but also as a songwriter. Some of her early compositions–such as the free, jazzy Square Roots on her 1986 debut album Point of View–tended to wander, looking for melodies and purpose. Her new songs, like Memphis, which is included on New Moon Daughter, have a steady, solemn confidence. Typically, Wilson’s newer songs are seas of tranquillity; tiny emotional variations have a major impact, a pebble in a calm pool of water. One of the best originals on the album, A Little Warm Death, crests with Wilson giving a smallish yelp of pleasure as she is carried away by the music. It resonates more than a dozen Alanis Morissette yowls. Wilson never overwhelms her songs; she tries only to guide them: “I try to be the channel, the vessel for a good performance. I let the music flow and allow it to evolve.”

To hear her tell it, Wilson seems to have long had a go-with-the-flow approach to life. Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, she didn’t find music, and music didn’t find her–it was, she says, “always there.” Her father was a jazz guitarist; her mother a schoolteacher who loved music. At home she grew up listening to Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson and other jazz greats. But in school, where desegregation was under way, she was introduced to a different kind of music by her white classmates–the songs of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan. “I went through an intense folk period,” she says. “I joined a folk band, sort of a Peter, Paul and Cassandra… flower children, bell bottoms, beads, Nehru collars and that whole vibe, peace and love. I was drawn to the music that came out of that.”

But she felt a stronger pull from jazz. After attending Jackson State and earning a degree in mass communications, she moved to New York City and struck up a friendship with saxophonist Steve Coleman, then a rising star in Brooklyn’s avant-garde music scene. For several years she worked with his cutting-edge group, M-Base, creating experimental mixes of jazz, funk and hip-hop, and setting the stage for her later, more successful but equally eclectic solo work. “I remember Steve saying to me that I could never do well until I created my own music and stopped worshipping the great innovators of the past,” says Wilson. “It’s more important to become an innovator yourself, he kept saying.”

Wilson, who is divorced and has a six-year-old son named Jeris, still lives in New York City, in a Harlem apartment building once occupied by Duke Ellington. She’s made the transition from jazz idolater to true innovator–anyone who can transform the Monkees’ silly Last Train to Clarksville into something serious and moving is clearly onto something. She laughs at the teasing she endured when, back in grade school, she used to walk around with a Monkees album under her arm. Black kids weren’t supposed to listen to music like that. And today, great jazz artists aren’t supposed to sing songs like that. “We live very segmented lives, across the board,” says Wilson. “There’s black music and there’s white music. There’s R. and B. and funk and whatever. This has always bothered me. People don’t see things in streams, they don’t see what tends to connect us all together. That’s what I see. That’s what I try to get to.”

–Reported by David E. Thigpen/New York

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