Cassandra Wilson: Country Strong

The beloved vocalist steps out of her comfort zone

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Cassandra Wilson
By Marco Glaviano

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On Memorial Day, as afternoon turned to evening and the barbecues wound down in the brownstone backyards next to Complete Music Studios in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights district, Cassandra Wilson convened her band for a five-hour rehearsal. In two days they would launch a weeklong run beginning in Bergen, Norway, continuing in Lviv, Ukraine, and concluding in Moscow.

Ensconced in Room 4 of the sprawling converted warehouse, the 56-year-old singer and her musicians worked methodically through the set list, postulating frameworks for such older Wilson standbys as “Fragile” and “Time After Time,” newer repertoire like “Red Guitar” and “Another Country” (both from Wilson’s June release, Another Country [Ojah/eOne]), and a stark, intense arrangement of “The Man I Love” by harmonica player Gregoire Maret,

Wilson’s current musical director and a steady presence in her bands since 2003. They sat in a circle, Maret to Wilson’s left, and then, proceeding clockwise, guitarist Brandon Ross, drummer John Davis, bassist Ben Williams (filling the chair for Reginald Veal, who would join the troupe in Europe, as would percussionist Lekan Babalola) and guitarist Marvin Sewell.

The final song was Wilson’s “A Little Warm Death,” which she debuted on New Moon Daughter, her 1995 chart-topper. Wilson was navigating the concluding vamp (“One little warm death/Come have one little warm death with me tonight”), denoting the time feel with gracefully calibrated arm swoops, when, suddenly, she interrupted the flow. “It’s a lazy rhythm,” Wilson said casually, looking at Davis, a recent addition to the band. Her blondish dreads hung loose, and she wore a diaphanous earth-toned blouse, white Capri slacks, gray espadrilles and clef-shaped earrings. A red Telecaster guitar stood to the right of her chair; a closed MacBook Pro was on the floor to her left. “In Bahia, they’ve got a thing, too, where they’re way behind the beat. Most instrumentalists want you to push it. But most singers, like me, we want to lay back—we’re lazy.” She offhandedly referenced several rappers. “They got some serious swag way behind the beat.”

After a final run-through of “A Little Warm Death,” Ross asked Wilson to try the Lennon-McCartney song “Tomorrow Never Knows.” “I don’t really know it yet,” Wilson responded. “Can you sing it?” Ross complied; Wilson listened attentively, smiled encouragingly, beat the rhythm on her knees. “Nice,” she said after Ross’ quick Polaroid of his intentions. While Ross and Davis established the changes and key, she opened the MacBook and, scrolling with her big toe, talked out the lyrics from the screen. In due time, she closed the computer, sat erect, planted her feet and claimed possession with a completely realized interpretation, bobbing and weaving within the rhythm, her infinitely flexible contralto conveying nuance and unveiling implication.

“I think they were dropping acid then,” Wilson said dryly after this textbook display of what it means to practice like you play. She exhaled and shook her head. “I’m running out of power.” But she recouped for a stomping “Come Together,” skipping registers with the ease of a bird in flight, even soaring into the soprano range for a quick minute. Then the evening’s work was done.

“I’ve witnessed that for many years, and it always amazes me,” Maret remarked the next morning on Wilson’s ability to instantly alchemize a song into her own argot. “She has no limits. She goes into the moment and interacts with whatever the whole ensemble has created for her.”

For Wilson, first and foremost, to be daring is a matter of musicianship. “The gospel that I’m trying to get out is that, OK, it’s fine to have a beautiful voice, but it will be even finer if you are able to communicate with that instrument as a musician,” she said over the phone from her home in Jackson, Miss., a week before the rehearsal. “In jazz, I think that is the connection you have to make before you even step foot into that world.”

“Cassandra does things that most singers should do,” Ross confirmed. “She’s more out of the Miles Davis realm of dealing with a melody. In an understated way, she takes things in a direction that doesn’t necessarily give you a lot of extended information, but can change the path of what you’re doing, which means it can sound wide-open.”

Still, Wilson acknowledges that a certain ineffable, intuitive mojo also shapes her interpretations. Speaking to me several years ago, she analogized it as akin to “trying on clothing, when you walk in the store and find something that really fits; I’ve found a path inside it, a way to sing it that’s true to my life story.”

In a separate conversation, Ross elaborated on that metaphor. “When I was Cassandra’s musical director,” he said, referencing the years 1993 to 1996, “I always looked at rehearsals as like a fitting session. I get the thing set up, do a tuck here or pin it there, then she’d come in and say, ‘Yeah, let’s go in that direction,’ then maybe take a break or be out on some business, and then come back in and hook it up. She doesn’t tell anyone exactly what to do. She lets people find the best things that can be played with her music. Maybe it takes a bit of time to get to that point. But once you get there, it’s magical.”

Time is not an infinitely available commodity on recording sessions, where Wilson, when functioning as her own producer, has occasionally found it problematic to achieve magical results on deadline with a hands-off creative process. “I am probably the worst when it comes to organization,” she told me a week before the rehearsal. “I procrastinate until the last minute to do things. I tend to give musicians too much freedom. I don’t like to tell someone how to play something. I have gotten to the point where I do express my feelings about how I want something translated, but in the past, I’ve been pretty laissez-faire. I just let the music unfold. Sometimes it comes out great; sometimes not so great.”

Perhaps for this reason, Wilson has decided on various occasions to rely on a producer’s vision to create the frame in which she operates. Craig Street oversaw the transitional mid-’90s recordings Blue Light ’Til Dawn and New Moon Daughter, on which, as Ross stated, “she claimed all of her personal experience and molded it into a statement of who she is as a human being and as an artist.” On these, Street removed her voice from the plugged-in frames of funk and hip-hop and modern jazz that she had navigated over the previous decade, and placed it in a spare strings-and-percussion context drawn straight from her Mississippi roots—specifically her apprentice years as a singer-guitarist around Jackson, where she was born and raised.

In 2000, after 18 years in New York, Wilson, needing time off to “get my bearings” and also wanting to keep an eye on her aging mother, began the process of resettling in Jackson. In 2002, she made the 150-mile drive up Highway 61 to Clarksville, to record the nostalgic, self-produced Belly of the Sun. For most of the aughts she also kept a residence in New Orleans, 185 miles due south; there, in 2008, she made the drum-centric covers date Loverly, a Grammy-winner, and, in 2010, put together the studio segments of Silver Pony, which documented the kinetic mojo her then-constant working band with Sewell, Veal, Babalola, pianist Jonathan Batiste and drummer Herlin Riley could generate in live performance.

She stayed in Jackson to make Thunderbird (2006), for which she recruited T-Bone Burnett to supervise a here-and-now iteration of the blues-and-roots trope that underpins her mature tonal personality. On four Wilson songs, keyboardist Keith Ciancia constructs complex and detailed sonic landscapes—textured layers of samples, loops, programming, beats, various vocal effects—that serve as couture to her timbre and illuminate the metaphysical subtext of her autobiographical lyrics. They effectively contrast less dressed-up folk repertoire to which guitarists Marc Ribot (Burnett’s “Lost”), Keb’ Mo’ (Willie Dixon’s “I Want to Be Loved”) and Colin Linden (“Red River Valley”) respond with more explicit blues connotations.

Vibrations of place are equally palpable on Another Country, conceived in New Orleans in February 2011 and recorded six months later in Florence, Italy. It’s a joint venture with producer-guitarist Fabrizio Sotti, a son of Padova whose c.v. includes tracks by, among others, Dead Prez, Q-Tip, 2Pac, Ghostface Killah, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, as well as several jazz albums that feature his luminous sound, impeccable chops and lyric imagination alongside world-class improvisers. Performed by Sotti on acoustic guitar, Julien Labro on accordion, Nicola Sorato on acoustic bass and Lekan Babalola and Mino Cinelu on percussion, the program, suffused with Mediterranean flavor, includes seven originals, six of them co-composed with Sotti, an extraordinary rendition of “O Sole Mio,” and two solo miniatures by Sotti.

They met in 2003, when Wilson, not thrilled with the fruits of several recording sessions for the follow-up to Belly of the Sun, was looking “to experiment, to find different textures to play with.” Their rapport was instant. “We became friends quickly,” she recalled. “It was really easy to work with him.”

The end product, Glamoured, to which Wilson contributed five originals and idiosyncratic renditions of Sting’s “Fragile,” Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” and Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” was the singer’s most personal, self-revelatory album of the ’00s. Seven years later, freed of caretaking responsibilities after her mother’s death the year before, and having fulfilled her obligations to Blue Note, her label since 1993, Wilson found herself again focusing on “constantly playing with and exploring ideas—I felt ready to start writing songs again.” Late in 2010, she and Sotti, with whom she had stayed in touch, began serious talks about a new record. A few months later, around Mardi Gras, they got to work in her French Quarter house.

“For a couple of months, we’d been tossing around ideas, frameworks, and chord progressions or songs, and Fabrizio already had ideas,” Wilson said. “I sat at the piano, he’d play and record the changes, and in the process we’d have conversations about how he felt when he wrote the music. A couple of tunes on Another Country—for example, ‘When Will I See You Again’—were formed based on those emotions.

“There is a strong, sympathetic energy between us. Fabrizio is detail-oriented and meticulous. Everything is in place in his universe. His nails are always cut. His guitars are clean. He doesn’t like to touch a guitar whose strings are too old. That organizational side of his personality matches me well. Also, we’re both guitar lovers, and we communicate very well based on that. Through the way he plays his guitar, he’s able to tap into certain basic emotions, places in my memory that are powerful and evocative.”

Armed with a half-dozen or so melodies, Wilson let the information marinate. She gradually conceived lyrics over the next several months, but didn’t complete them until August, when she and Sotti reunited in Florence to make the recording. “Passion,” a tango, is her response to “the beautiful apartment we had in Piazza della Signoria—you’ve got the David there, the museums, the fountains in the street, the balconies, the foot traffic, people eating out.” Wilson related that she came up with “Almost Twelve”—an idiomatic street samba that Sotti positions as “a modern version of what Gilberto and Ella Fitzgerald did with Ella Abraça Jobim”—after “traveling back from the studio one night, not being able to find our way back to the hotel, and going around in circles in the maze of the old city of Florence for about an hour and a half.”

Wilson added that she found the melody and the lyric of the title track not long after the idyllic sojourn, while in Woodstock, where she keeps a residence. “I’m still trying to decipher the meaning,” she said. “It’s about experiencing life in different stages and in different times, and experiencing love, and seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, seeing their world—which is what I did when I went to Italy with Fabrizio. I experienced Italy in a totally different light. We tend to identify ourselves as the other whenever we go into a culture. But once you’re inside it, you begin to make a connection.”

Sotti remarked that the songs bear a tone parallel to those of Glamoured, which addressed subjects of love, loss and betrayal. “It’s a similarly transitional time for her, and these are clearly quite personal, a lot of stories of things she’s actually going through,” he said. “Cassandra’s voice is a unique instrument. She’s an originator, not only in the style she plays but in the sound of her voice as well. There aren’t too many other comparable voices out there—prior or after. We respect each other and trust each other deeply. Either of us could say that something was ready, and we’d follow the other’s lead. It was a total collaboration between two musicians who totally speak the same language. We talked about chord changes, forms, even beyond just the poetry of the words and everything else. There were no boundaries, no stigmas of any kind. We just said, ‘Let’s try to write the music we feel now and do it the best way we can.’”

It was Sotti’s idea to use the accordion, which seals the Mediterranean ambiance. “I associate the instrument with the emotion that the Italians call malinconia,” Wilson said, savoring each syllable. “It’s in the lyric of ‘O Sole Mio.’ Malinconia is melancholy. Saudade is another great word—it’s the same emotion. The Irish love melancholy, too.

“I think I’m a melancholy specialist. It’s a sweet—or bittersweet—emotion. There’s always this condition of the human heart to long for something that it imagines it would need. It’s not a bad feeling. For me, it’s a rich feeling. I think it’s a beautiful part of being human, to have longing, to always search for something, to always seek to make the heart whole.”

On tour with her band in Italy before her stay in Florence, Wilson performed a concert “at some Etruscan ruins or an archaeological dig.” She researched the subject, and found “interesting connections between the Etruscan culture and the Yoruba people—the way they created their courtyards, the architecture, the spiritual stuff.”

She references this connection on the coda of Another Country, a lilting track titled “Olomuroro,” a Yoruba word that directly translates as “one with droopy breasts” but also denotes a mythological monster who stole a boy’s meal while the boy grew thinner. “We’re drawing upon the former story,” Wilson said when she stopped laughing. “The song is about the women in the village who come around to care for the children when their parents are not there, because they need feeding, they need milk. The breasts are drooping because they are the breasts of the wet nurse. The Yoruba people don’t have any issues singing about the beauty of big, drooping breasts.”

Herself the mother of a son who is past his majority, Wilson—who draws deep sustenance from Mississippi roots—attends closely to matters of heritage. “The first five years of your life, your personality is formed,” she remarked. “The place where that happens is significant, and it holds a lot of powerful emotional material that you can draw upon.”

It is not surprising that, in the second half of her sixth decade, Wilson would conclude an album of love songs with one that directly signifies a matriarchal worldview from an ancestral perspective. Her mother, Mary Fowlkes, was a Ph.D. and professor of Spanish at Jackson State; her grandmother, to whom she was particularly close in her early childhood, was a conjure woman figure.

“Her habits were mysterious and unusual,” Wilson recalled. “She would wear an apron, which had two pockets in which she carried seeds, and had a wonderful smell. I have some of those seeds still. She was a woman who had moved from what would be called rural Mississippi to the city, and she kept a gun. Even in her 70s, she loved to go off into the woods and gather. She was an herbalist. She could make medicines. She used to take a cup and raise it above her head and circle her head three times. Lekan Babalola told me, after I described it to him, that it’s a Yoruba gesture. Three times over the head before leaving something, casting it away.”

Although Wilson hasn’t cast away her Harlem apartment or her New York connections, she states that she is now “out of New Orleans” and spending most of her time in Jackson. “Making this the base has completely turned my thought processes around,” she said. “Instead of thinking about what I need to do in New York to further my career, or to get the message out, or to create the music, I’m doing that here. The way that I look at my career now is based on my community, and the work that I do in this community. I look at this stage of my life as being mine to make, and my decisions are based on what I think my path is.”

Part of that path will include hewing to Abbey Lincoln’s suggestion that “it’s important for singers to write songs about what’s happening in their lives, not to focus on the songs and the stories of other people’s lives. Abbey explained to me that it’s great to sing a standard—and of course, it is, if it’s your own story—but it’s so much more important for you to add to that your story, and to constantly stay in touch with that story, that narrative.”

Toward that end, Wilson stated, “I’m going to work on developing a core of musicians to play with, and making sure that core is strong enough to interpret the music on its own. Then, once you get to the live part, you begin to create the other life of the song. The song doesn’t just stay where it is. It has to go through all these permutations and changes. That’s exciting, too, because you can stumble across something else entirely new that then, again, will lead you to the next project. It can be scary. But it’s a good scary.

“I love the mistake, and I love that feeling of stepping out and doing something that will cause a mistake. In order to get to that point, you have to get out of your comfort zone. You can’t continue to make music that engages the audience on the level that you want them to be engaged if you remain in your comfort zone. I change my policy every day. Who knows what’s going to happen next time?”

Originally published in September 2012

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