Monday, November 15, 2010

Rediscovering Cassandra Wilson

Cassandra Wilson (vocals, multi-instrumentalist; b. 1955)
Silver Pony (Blue Note; 2010)

Marvin Sewell (guitar) Reginald Veal (bass) Herlin Riley (drums)
Jonathan Batiste (piano) Lekan Babalola (percusssion)
Ravi Coltrane (sax) Helen Gillet (cello) John Legend (guest vocals)
Luke Laird (guitar) Brandon Ross (guitar)

Cassandra Wilson is that rare jazz vocalist who can create a distinct atmosphere, aura and all around level of creativity and originality that stands high above her current contemporaries. Betty Carter, Nina Simone, Carmen McCrae are some of my favourite examples of the real jazz chanteuse who delivered their own material in addition to reimagining standards across various genres. Cassandra Wilson is definitely in this category.

For the last decade, so called "jazz singers" have carved out territory utilizing jazz/pop material with mixed results. Cassandra Wilson has been on scene for well over 30 years and continues to show that she has an unmatched manner in constructing material from various disparate forms.

She gained notoriety during he stint with the funk-jazz, M-Base Collective lead by Steve Coleman in the 80s. She finally branched out on her own in the late 80s with a series of albums mainly focused on jazz standards (on the JMT and Winter To Winter labels) but with her distinct spin. She finally broke out to the masses with her releases on Blue Note Records, most importantly New Moon Daughter (Blue Note; 1995) which won a Grammy.

Her deep vocals float lovingly and give an intense introspective feeling to her material. That delivery along with her unique arrangements is what makes every album delight to experience. That doesn't change on the new album, Silver Pony (Blue Note), an album rich in tradition of her Mississippi blues roots but with folksy jazz sensibilities. The album title (and cover art) comes from a childhood experience of not being afraid of getting on top of a pony to have her picture taken. The fearlessness continues on the direction of Silver Pony.

"Went Down To St. James Infirmary" a somewhat blues standard, Wilson turns it into a funky homage thanks to some great guitar work from Marvin Sewell. The self-penned "Beneath The Silver Moon" is another example of the introspection that Wilson can conjure in the listener. This passion-piece is a lovers delight and meant to stir the desire of the soul. The vocal interplay that Wilson has with guest saxophonist Ravi Coltrane is sublime.

"Saddle Up My Pony" sees Cassandra Wilson reaching deep into the blues vault of the great and under-rated Charles Patton. This journeyman's songs and Wilson takes you on that journey with ease and beauty that only she can do. The musicianship and quality of material throughout Silver Pony is superb and you forget that this is "categorized" as a jazz record. But under the direction of Cassandra Wilson is more world music. Exploring the heart and the soul and music relation to it. Jazz is just the base point for Wilson catapult from.

The "funky drummer" moment as I like to call it, happens midway through Silver Pony, with "Forty Days And Forty Nights" another blues tune (made famous by Muddy Waters) in which percussion, drum and guitar work led the proceedings by Lekan Babalola, Herlin Riley and Sewell respectively. This time with a rich, infectious rhythms that take this blues piece in a brave new direction. "Blackbird", an under appreciated Beatles song (if you're a fair-weathered Beatles fan) from The White Album, is fully transformed under Wilson's direction from folksy acoustic to lovingly lounge jazz burner.

Now, I haven't to admit as I did to a friend recently, I haven't kept up with most of Cassandra Wilson material of the last few years. I have heard tracks here and there but I hadn't sat down with an album until now. And I'm actually glad I did. Silver Pony is all the reason I'd got into Cassanda Wilson in the first place. The adventure. The surprise. The voice. Silver Pony is a great record and actually a nice place to start for anyone who hasn't listened to Cassandra Wilson before.

A lot people have probably seen this video but I think it serves as perfect example of Wilson beauty and originality.

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