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Cassandra Wilson: Traveling Miles

The natural instinct to pay homage to the late, great Miles Davis comes fraught with questions. How to approach the task? What era of his long, winding career to focus on? How to bow to a master’s touch while respecting one’s own aesthetic? For Cassandra Wilson, whose own career thus far has been a long-ish and winding one, and who finds fluid links between genres and sings with what-me-worry savvy, her Miles tribute amounts to a graceful solution to the inherent problem. Its organic voodoo-running variations, electro-acoustic imagination-accent on acoustic, including bassist Lonnie Plaxico’s stand-up bottom end-and overall luxuriant muscularity of conception grabs you slowly, surely.

The eclectic artistic agenda is announced at the git-go, with the folk-funk cadences of Miles’ “Run the Voodoo Down,” with lyrics by Wilson. Even in Miles’ densest electric period of the mid-’70s, an introspective voice was at work, an idea echoed in Wilson’s line “…here in this quiet place I own, worlds are born.” Old M-BASE comrade Steve Coleman flings his angular alto sax brushstrokes in the midst of Wilson’s musky beauty of a title cut, with its melodic contours and vocal sonorities recalling Joni Mitchell. The refrain tells all, about the man and the album: “traveling miles, crossing time, shifting style.” Another original, “When the Sun Goes Down” seems out of place here, with its loping shuffle and its garage band guitar solo by Marvin Sewell.

But the real news here has to do with rethinking Miles classics. From the ’80s Miles bag, Cyndi Lauper’s bubblegum tune “Time After Time” gets new, soothing treatment, swaddled in ringing acoustic guitars, and Marcus Miller’s “Tutu”-now “Resurrection Blues”-is a slinky place, nicely colored by Sewell’s vibrato-laden, Daniel Lanois-ish electric guitar parts. “Seven Steps to Heaven” is an uptempo yet cool burner, with violin fire from Regina Carter, and “ESP”-retitled “Never Broken-” emerges with an exotic, undulant pulse.

Best of all are the slow tunes: the haunting Miles/Bill Evans ballad “Blue in Green” is reborn in a lyrical version as “Sky and Sea,” its yearning chord changes providing a lovely vehicle for Wilson’s breathy poise, and guest Pat Metheny’s sadly radiant nylon-string guitar solo. “Someday My Prince Will Come” arrives as a bittersweet lament, its melody laid sideways across a guitar-based backdrop and drums-with-brushes. The new approach is refreshing, weird, and something that stepped out of a dream, which, in the main, describes this peculiar jewel.

Originally Published