Albums reviewed on this page:
Jump World - Dance To The Drums Again - Blue Light 'Til Dawn - New Moon Daughter - Traveling Miles - Belly Of The Sun - Thunderbird
Hailing from Jackson, Mississippi, jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson is a unique, sometimes baffling talent: Blessed with a deep, lush, insinuating voice, she often wastes it trying to wring the last drop of emotion out of slight pop songs. A talented songwriter, she often fills her albums with covers of slight pop songs. Okay, enough complaining about those slight pop songs... Wilson has a presence and style to be reckoned with. Early in her career she was part of Steve Coleman's M-Base collective, but her slow, portentous approach wasn't a good match for their dense, jumpy jazz-funk. Soon she began to focus on acoustic guitars, Latin percussion and blues idioms, making her reputation with a string of similar-sounding albums. Her 2006 release Thunderbird is a partial break from that style, incorporating dance-pop elements without compromising Wilson's rock-solid integrity.
Point Of View (1985)
The band includes Coleman (alto sax), Lonnie Plaxico (bass), Mark Johnson (drums), Jean-Paul Bourelly (guitar) and Grachan Moncur III (trombone). (DBW)
Blue Skies (1988)
This time players include Plaxico, Mulgrew Miller (piano) and Teri Lynne Carrington (drums). (DBW)
Jump World (1990)
Packed with M-Base musicians - Coleman, Osby, Plaxico, guitarist David Gilmore, bassist Kevin Bruce Harris, Graham Haynes on trombone - and the attendant odd time signatures and cerebral yet propulsive vamps.
As with Wilson's contemporaneous guest appearances on Coleman albums, the results are mixed:
"Woman On The Edge" is a moving, thought-provoking examination of homelessness; "Whirlwind Soldier" is a piano-heavy torch song that benefits from Mark Johnson's vigorous drumming.
On the other hand, the title track is a scattershot hip hop collage with a self-important rap from James Moore, and "Domination Switch" is standard Coleman syncopated funk, but with Wilson's directionless musings in place of stinging solos. Other cuts like the betrayal anthem "Lies" are pleasant but don't give any hint of Wilson's gifts.
And probably the most successful collaboration is the mellowest - the archly romantic "Love Phases Dimensions," with a surprisingly tender Coleman solo - indicating the direction she would pursue throughout most of the decade.
She Who Weeps (1991)
Nearing the end of the M-Base phase of Wilson's career, with Johnson, Bourelly, and bassist Reggie Washington. There's a cover of Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge," among others. (DBW)
Dance To The Drums Again (1992)
A collaboration with guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly; they produced and wrote nearly everything together. But Bourelly's guitar stays in the background, except on his worried, much-processed solos (recalling Hendrix at his most introspective).
Otherwise, a mostly empty canvas with bass, percussion and touches of synth leaves maximum space for Wilson's unhurried, full-throated voicings ("Amazing Grace").
A few tracks based on programmed drums recall the spare grace of Nona Hendryx's SkinDiver ("Rhythm On My My Mind"), but the record's just as reminiscent of smoky nightclub jazz ("Another Rainy Day," with James Weidman on piano).
Sonically nothing like the abstract agita of Wilson's M-Base cohorts, but it's conceptually akin in collapsing past and future with no regard for pigeonholes.
Though Wilson's reputation is based on mystique and mood (and there's plenty of each here), she's also quite a songwriter (the offhanded groove "Melanin Song"), which is harder to detect on her later, cover-heavy releases.
Blue Light 'Til Dawn (1993)
A set of pop tunes sung very slowly, accompanied by various kinds of acoustic guitars. There's also an a cappella piece that comes across like a spiritual ("Sankofa"), and a couple of tracks layered thick with South American percussion ("Estrellas"). It certainly succeeds in creating a distinctive mood, and Wilson's voice is lovely, particularly in her lower range, but it's not exactly foot-stomping entertainment. If you're looking for something mellow and laid back, but more original than whatever bland commercialism is playing on the local Cool Jazz station, this will fit the bill.
The songs include "Black Crow" by Joni Mitchell, "Tupelo Honey" by Van Morrison, interpolating Jimi Hendrix' "Angel," and Ann Peebles' "I Can't Stand The Rain." There are also several Wilson originals (title track), and two Robert Johnson blues: "Come On In My Kitchen" and "Hellhound On My Trail." (DBW)
New Moon Daughter (1995)
Along the same lines as the previous work, with incredibly slow versions
of rock (U2's "Love Is Blindness," the Monkees's "Last Train To Clarksville"),
blues (Son House's "Death Letter") and country (Hank Williams' "I'm So
Lonesome I Could Cry," Neil Young's "Harvest
Moon"), backed by a variety of acoustic guitars. I still get the feeling
I'm missing something: her voice is rich and husky-smooth, and the guitar tones
are exquisite, but there's just not enough going on to sustain my
interest. She does do a remarkable job with the Billie Holiday vehicle
"Strange Fruit" and Hoagy Carmichael's overrecorded "Skylark," and the
several Wilson originals are more substantial than their Blue
Light cousins ("Solomon Sang," almost a spiritual; "A Little Warm
Death"). This was a huge seller by jazz standards, and I expect she'll
continue to mine this vein, but by god, someone's got to stand up and
say that Wilson's wasting her remarkable talent. Boy, do I feel better
With covers of "Autumn Leaves," "It Might As Well Be Spring" and Herbie Hancock's "Chan's Song." (DBW)
Traveling Miles (1999)
Another blend of acoustic guitars, percussion, slow tempos and covers, but this time it's given coherence by the theme: paying tribute to Miles Davis.
Curiously, the disc is most successful when she takes on his fusion period, as underwritten tunes like "Miles Runs The Voodoo Down" and "Tutu" which were unsatisfying the first time around become actual songs once Wilson's put words and some structure to them: the former becomes a terrifying, eerie statement of purpose, while the latter (retitled "Resurrection Blues") is a biting blues with a memorable guitar solo.
And as the two artists share an attraction to pop, it's natural for Wilson to reinterpret Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" and the Disney chestnut "Someday My Prince Will Come," both of which Davis had recorded. Throughout more space is left over for the sidemen - guitarists Kevin Breit and Marvin Sewell; violinist Regina Carter ("Seven Steps To Heaven"); Plaxico; Davis alumnus Dave Holland - so the album holds your interest even when she's out of the spotlight.
Where the disc falls short, for once, is in the original material: the easygoing acoustic vibe is often matched with facile lyrics resulting in a fifth-generation folk-rock sound reminiscent of the Dave Matthews Band ("Right Here, Right Now").
Belly Of The Sun (2002)
No surprises if you've been following Wilson's career: more slow covers of ancient blues (Robert Johnson's "Hot Tamales"; a rousing "You Gotta Move") and featherweight pop ("The Weight"), backed by acoustic guitars and percussion. Breit and Sewell again provide most of the guitars, and Baptista is the main percussionist. So it's familiar but well done, with a compelling reading of Dylan's "Shelter From The Storm."
The originals are hit and miss: "Just Another Parade" features guest vocalist India.Arie but doesn't find much for her to do, while "Drunk As Cooter Brown" ably captures the spirit Wilson's reaching for.
Produced by Wilson.
Covers this time include Sting's "Fragile," Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" and Muddy Waters's "Honey Bee."
Produced by T-Bone Burnett, who shifted direction sharply to dance music tempos and pop instrumentation. Improbably, it works, with the rhythm section of Keefus Ciancia (keys), Mike Elizondo (bass) and the ageless Jim Keltner anchoring a sound that's flexible and fresh.
Meanwhile, the few slow acoustic guitar showpieces ("Red River Valley") benefit from the contrast.
Not as many covers as usual, though she does take on Jakob Dylan's "Closer To You" (what was his band called again?).
Guests include avant-garde guitarist Marc Ribot ("Lost") and Keb' Mo' (Willie Dixon's "I Want To Be Loved").
A more conventional set of standards ("Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most"; "St. James Infirmary"), with Jason Moran and Plaxico among the backing musicians.
Silver Pony (2010)
This time there's a focus on 60s and 70s pop songs ("Blackbird"; "If It's Magic"; Big Star's "Watch The Sunrise").
You gotta move.