Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Cassandra Wilson: Golden Age

Cassandra Wilson
Cassandra Wilson
Cassandra Wilson

“Well, first of all, Cassandra really is maybe the best singer in the world.”

This is the assessment of Joseph Henry Burnett-aka T Bone Burnett, one of the preeminent behind-the-scenes figures in American popular music-during a recent conversation about Cassandra Wilson. It’s almost the first thing he says, in fact, with the casual certainty of a man bearing witness to the truth.

Burnett is hardly a disinterested party, of course. He produced Thunderbird, Wilson’s seventh Blue Note album, and has reason to root for its success. But the man crowned producer of the year by Grammy voters a few years back (for the sleeper-hit soundtrack to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?) doesn’t seem prone to hyperbole. The antithesis of a wheeler-dealer, he’s the kind of person who considers the weight of his praise.

The scales are already tipped, in this case; Wilson’s excellence as a vocalist has been well established over the last two decades, and especially during her 13-year Blue Note career. Her deep-earth contralto is difficult to describe-it’s late-morning sunlight and bittersweet molasses, or “sultry” or “sumptuous” or whatever else you’ve got-but unfailingly easy to recognize, even for the portion of the population that would be hard-pressed to put a face to her name. Five years ago, Time magazine hailed her as America’s best singer; the honor, like Burnett’s appraisal, was designed to transcend genre-which is what Wilson has been doing, more or less, since she flew onto the cultural radar.

Charting a course with her first Blue Note release, Blue Light Til Dawn, Wilson has trafficked in what one might reasonably term heartland music: blues, country, gospel, folk, acoustic pop. But context and circumstance have accurately pegged her as a jazz artist, as have the particulars of her aesthetic process. Irrevocably, indisputably, she’s one of our own. And the strength of her example has gradually altered the contours of contemporary jazz singing, in ways that some observers would decry.

Not Burnett, though. “She’s the last great jazz singer,” the producer asserts, proving that hyperbole wins a round every now and again. “I mean, maybe somebody else will come along, but as far as I see on the horizon, she’s the last real one. In a lot of ways-though I say this with some trepidation-she may be one of the greatest of all time.”

Cassandra Wilson has been spending a lot of time of late in Jackson, Miss., where she was born just over 50 years ago. It’s basically Delta country, musically sanctified soil; a few years back, Wilson recorded songs there for her last album, Glamoured. Not long before that, she rented out a train depot in Clarksdale-some three hours north on Highway 55-to lay the tracks, as it were, for her blues-enriched Belly of the Sun.

“Jackson, Mississippi,” Wilson says over the phone, savoring the cadence of the phrase. “It’s a little run-down. We got hit by Katrina, so there’s a bit of tree damage, some building damage. But we’re doing OK.” The hardy resignation in her tone seems to have as much to do with a difficult personal situation-she was caring for her ailing mother-as with the posthurricane condition of the region. Of course, hardy resignation is not so foreign a temperament in a place known as the cradle of the blues.

Another component of the blues is resilience, which happens to be a priority for Wilson at the moment. She named Thunderbird after the Native American mythological totem, a great protector often discerned in lightning patterns and rolling clouds. “I had a hard time through three-quarters of the process,” she confesses, describing the making of the album. “There were so many things that were going on in my life, so many problems I was having outside of the music. And as much as sorrow and tragedy sometimes feed your creative process, it’s really difficult if it’s happening at the same time.”

When asked about the nature of those problems, Wilson demurs-“I don’t know if I’m ready to be that honest about my life”-but she’s forthright about the effect it had on her approach to the music. “I figured there’s no reason to try to distance my emotions from what I’m doing, because that’s what I do for a living: I use my emotions in order to create my work. So I just decided to let those feelings happen. There was a lot of anxiety. There was a lot of frustration, fear, pain. You just live through the emotion, and the music then acts as a balm, in a sense. It can soothe you, it can protect you; it can allow you the space to experience those really strong emotions.”

As a working method, this sounds suspiciously like therapy. Crucially, the album doesn’t, despite the fact that within its first minute Wilson sings this stanza: “Smoke and run/Is my mission/Happiness is all I need right now.”

Smoke and run: It’s an awfully restless route to happiness, littered with outlaw intrigue and evasion. One could hardly imagine a more appropriate imperative for Wilson’s musical career.

Funny thing about outlaws: They often work in bands. Wilson may be a classic solitary type-she gives the distinct impression of someone who dwells alone with her thoughts-but musically speaking, she has forged her craft in the company of others. This, along with her abundant talent, is the reason for her reputation as a musician’s singer: She’s a musician herself, by temperament and training.

Wilson’s father, Herman B. Fowlkes, was a guitarist and bassist of regional renown. “I remember going to one particular place on Farish Street, a place he frequently worked in,” she says. “There was a certain feeling that I had there. I’m certain that’s why I became a musician: because I was exposed to all of these musicians, and this community that was really vibrant and soulful and intriguing. At that time, it was predesegregation in the South. So our lives were lived inside of that community. We really didn’t have to go outside of it for anything. So I think that the memories of that, even if I can’t really pinpoint it, it has a smell and a mood to it that I’m always trying to recapture.”

As a child, Wilson studied piano and played guitar, singing and writing songs all the while; she has reminisced about the ersatz songwriting contests staged by the kids in her neighborhood. Later, as a young woman in the thrall of Joni Mitchell, she started performing in folk settings, self-accompanied on an acoustic guitar.

The influence of her mother, Mary Fowlkes, an educator, prompted Wilson to establish something to fall back on. She studied mass communications at Jackson State University-not the worst major for a singer, in retrospect-and, in the early ’80s, moved to New Orleans to take a job as assistant public affairs director for a local television station.

Significantly, it was the musicians who pulled Wilson deeper into her art. In New Orleans, she was mentored by the saxophonist Earl Turbinton, an irrepressible figure with a handle on the intricacies of the local scene. Then, after a move to the New York area, she famously fell in with the crowd surrounding another saxophonist, Steve Coleman.

It was a time of heady ascendance for Coleman’s M-BASE Collective, which was working toward a new black music informed by sources ancient and futuristic, visceral and cerebral. Wilson became the movement’s house vocalist, appearing on Coleman’s 1985 debut, Motherland Pulse. She took a leap of her own the same year with Point of View, in the company of Coleman, trombonist Grachan Moncur III, guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly, bassist Lonnie Plaxico and drummer Mark Johnson. For the rest of the ’80s, she created a body of work on JMT (an adventurous imprint of Polygram) that was most remarkable for her surefootedness amidst challenging musical settings. It was self-styled visionary music, experimental in aim and execution, and Wilson’s presence in it was like that of an ensemble player; she was even mixed, sonically, like a member of the band.

There was one noteworthy exception: Blue Skies, an album released in 1988 (and now available in reissued form, like most of Wilson’s JMT catalog, on the German label Winter & Winter). With crisp acoustic combo backing-Mulgrew Miller on piano, Lonnie Plaxico on bass and Terri Lyne Carrington on drums-Wilson tucked into what we’d now call the Great American Songbook, applying a cool elasticity to tunes like “Sweet Lorraine,” “I’m Old Fashioned” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.” She sounded quite a bit like her formative influence Betty Carter, a fact that delighted many more people than it dismayed. Despite limited distribution, the album was a modest hit, and Billboard named it jazz album of the year.

Wilson’s reaction to this acclaim was to withdraw, regroup and change courses; she scuttled any promise as a standard-bearer by releasing Jumpworld, an album of knotty original material conceived as a sci-fi fusion opera. Many in the jazz world saw this as self-sabotage. Some still harbor vestiges of that opinion about Wilson’s overall career.

What everyone has realized by now is that Wilson never wanted to be the prototypical jazz singer-let alone “the next Betty Carter”-although she could have made it if she had. Blue Skies is, incredibly, the only standards album in her 20-year recording career, and there’s clearly a hunger for more of its kind. In 2002, Verve issued Sings Standards, a compilation of songbook tracks scattered across her JMT releases; without fanfare or much promotion, it reached the fifth spot on Billboard’s Top Jazz Albums chart.

Eclecticism, for lack of a better term, has been the predominant feature of Wilson’s Blue Note tenure from the beginning. “She had in mind to do something with her M-BASE-type band,” remembers Bruce Lundvall, Blue Note’s president and CEO. “I had sort of a disagreement with her and said, ‘Why don’t you make an acoustic record? Your downtown band is good, but we’re not looking for musical democracy; I really signed you as a solo artist and want to be able to hear you.’ I had seen her a couple nights before this meeting and didn’t feel that it was the best situation for her. She came back with Craig Street, who I didn’t even know.”

The ensuing story, though well circulated, bears repeating. “She had moved into the same building that I was living in uptown, and we ran into each other in the lobby one day,” recalls Street, whom Wilson knew as an occasional producer of live events; at the time, he was supporting himself with construction work. “She had just gotten signed to Blue Note. She said, ‘They’re looking to put me with these big-time producers,’ and it was one of those things: I just blurted out, ‘I’ll produce you.’ She went to the label and, in classic Cassandra fashion, said, ‘I’ve found the producer for my record. He’s a construction worker that lives in my building.'” Lundvall authorized a short demo recording, and on the strength of the resulting two tracks-“You Don’t Know What Love Is” and Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey”-encouraged Wilson and Street to proceed with Blue Light Til Dawn, the acoustic folk-blues-jazz mélange that would be widely hailed as a breakthrough.

Wilson was hardly the first major jazz artist of the era to look beyond standards for inspiration; Lundvall is quick to point out that Dianne Reeves, another Blue Note artist, had already incorporated elements of pop and R&B. But with Blue Light Til Dawn and its follow-up, New Moon Daughter, Wilson made bigger waves, in the jazz world and beyond. Both reached the top spot on Billboard’s Jazz Albums chart; the latter penetrated the Billboard 200 and won the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal performance. The press and public alike seized on the notion that jazz repertory could come from the byways of American folk music (both the rustic and confessional varieties) as well as the songbook mainstream. The power of that realization was profound enough to make it into a kind of fact; these days, it’s a given that any serious contemporary jazz singer will delve into rustic folk, world music or adult pop and soul. It’s also not so strange to hear a jazz singer backed by acoustic stringed instruments rather than piano, bass and drums.

There’s an audience for such hybrids; for proof, look no further than Blue Note’s contemporary roster. This spring the label introduced the Wood Brothers, an acoustic folk-pop project featuring bassist Chris Wood (of Medeski, Martin & Wood) and his guitar-playing brother, Oliver; last year it took on Amos Lee, a soul-inspired singer-songwriter. A few years back, it signed Keren Ann, a breathy chanteuse with a Parisian address. Just before that, of course, there was Norah Jones, whose first official release was produced in part by Street-and whose aesthetic identity is virtually unimaginable without the precedent of Wilson. “There are people out there who are sophisticated and intelligent and looking for unique artists and good music,” argues Lundvall, sounding like a man who knows.

Statistically speaking, it’s safe to say that most of those so-called sophisticated people own at least one recording produced by T Bone Burnett. The Recording Industry Association of America has certified the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack platinum seven times. Since then, Burnett has had a hand in soundtracks for Cold Mountain, A Mighty Wind, The Ladykillers and last year’s Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line. Then there’s his career as an album producer, which includes successful work with Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, the Wallflowers, Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss and Tony Bennett with k.d. lang. An accomplished musician in his own right, Burnett is scheduled to release a new album, The True False Identity, on Columbia in May; later that month, Columbia/Legacy is set to issue Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett.

Burnett credits hearing Wilson’s starkly harrowing version of “Strange Fruit”-the lead track from New Moon Daughter-as the moment he became a fan. He had only worked with her briefly once, on a compilation, when she came calling about Thunderbird. “I wasn’t really producing records anymore,” Burnett says. “I’m trying to get away from that bad habit. But to get a chance to work with Cassandra was irresistible.”

Thunderbird took shape gradually, over the span of quite a few months-not the usual timetable for a jazz album. The simplest explanation for this is that it’s really not a jazz album, strictly speaking; Wilson’s Blue Note releases have always warranted that disclaimer, but never as much as this one. It began with a week or so of freewheeling jam sessions at the Village Recorder in Los Angeles; later, after the results had been absorbed, there were follow-up sessions at Capitol Studios in Hollywood, among other places. (This cost a lot more to make than the typical jazz production, as Lundvall points out.)

The heart of the album is the alchemical reaction between Wilson and Burnett. “It was a little tentative at first,” ventures Burnett. “We’re both probably a little shy.” (Wilson counters: “I think that perhaps what he experienced from me was the distance, the emotional baggage that I was carrying around with me at the time.”) Over time, their rapport deepened considerably, a fact that manifests in the music. Thunderbird is expressly a Cassandra Wilson product, but it has a presence that’s flintier, weightier and clearer than her last few releases, which were all superb in stretches but a bit cloudy on the whole.

Surely this has something to do with the presence of a gifted producer, something Wilson hasn’t really had since New Moon Daughter. Street, her first producer, describes Wilson as “probably one of the most open and collaborative artists that I have ever met. And so a person like that really responds well to production.” This would seem especially true of the production style that Street owns up to borrowing from Burnett, which focuses more on creating an open atmosphere than on imposing a particular vision of order.

“My philosophy as a producer is to stay out of the way as much as possible,” Burnett maintains, and to hear Wilson tell it, he did. “He was able to appear and disappear and make things happen even when he was not there,” she says. “I got a sense early on that he commanded the space in a way that was indicative of a very evolved spirit. Most producers like to be hands-on; they’re there, they’re ever-present, they’re hovering and indicating and instructing. And T Bone is just the opposite. If those qualities are there, they’re very discreet. And I always found that fascinating, that ability.”

“A lot of what I did was bring the musicians in and cast the thing in the first place,” says Burnett. Given Wilson’s history of melding with her musical environment, the significance of that simple action shouldn’t be underestimated. Whereas Wilson’s recent albums have featured versions of her working band, Thunderbird involved a different sort of crew. In addition to a few musicians known in jazz circles (Reginald Veal on acoustic bass, Gregoire Maret on harmonica and Marc Ribot on guitar), the album enlisted legendary session drummer Jim Keltner, Canadian slide guitarist Colin Linden and, more briefly, blues guitarist Keb Mo and a pair of additional drummers, Bill Maxwell and Jay Bellerose. The two most central figures were Mike Elizondo, a bassist who produced not only Fiona Apple’s bold pop album Extraordinary Machine (Columbia) but also Top 40 hip-hop singles by 50 Cent and Eve; and Keith Ciancia, aka Keefus Green, a keyboardist whose credits range from rappers Dr. Dre and Ice Cube to bluegrass heroine Alison Krauss.

By all accounts, Ciancia, who receives a coproducer credit, was the album’s most vital participant not named Cassandra Wilson. It was he who worked out many of the arrangements with Wilson, reharmonizing some songs and conjuring others from scratch. (“I hadn’t worked with her before, so I kind of just was throwing everything her way,” he says. “She’s so great at knowing what she likes and what direction she wants to go in.”) Their partnership transforms “Closer to You,” a ballad by Jakob Dylan that the Wallflowers played straight, into an intimate bedroom confessional; when Wilson begins by musing about “how soft a whisper can get,” the impulse is to lean in and find out.

Ciancia, in his other life, works closely with a very different singer, Jade Vincent, in a group called Vincent and Mr. Green. (When they began working together 14 years ago, the first song she asked him to learn was “Whirlwind Soldier,” from Wilson’s Jumpworld.) Vincent and Mr. Green’s self-titled debut, released a couple years ago on the underground rock label Ipecac, showcases Ciancia’s knack for ambient unrest and dark gothic fury. Remarkably, it’s not a stretch to detect flashes of that ethos at certain points on Thunderbird; listen to a track like “Daddy,” by Vincent and Mr. Green, and then consult “Poet,” a song composed by Wilson with Ciancia. The latter track involves far less psychosis, but its sonic signature is more or less the same. (Lyrically, the song offers a sensuous counterpoint to “Closer to You,” with the soft whisper replaced by something “between a scream and a shout.” You get the picture.)

Thunderbird offers other rewards, some of them more recognizably Wilsonian. The traditional Western ballad “Red River Valley” receives a poignant reading, with Linden’s guitar providing the only accompaniment; similar duet chemistry distinguishes Burnett’s Tin Pan Alley-esque “Lost,” with Ribot applying his unmistakable style. “I Want to Be Loved,” the Willie Dixon classic best known in renditions by Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones, draws back to an unhurried gait, with Wilson sounding both playful and languid. The sound of her voice is always gripping, even when it’s multitracked in the background-something that hasn’t appeared often in her oeuvre.

One of the album’s transcendent moments is a version of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Easy Rider” that begins in haunting quietude and then slowly, in almost imperceptible stages, awakens. Roughly two minutes in-just in time for the refrain “There’s gonna be a time when a woman don’t need no man”-the ensemble hits, like a blinding blast of daylight. It’s the blues, but not the rustic variety that Wilson has always favored. And it’s not quite an electric roadhouse romp, either. Something about it suggests the humid sound of Bob Dylan’s recent, sublime albums Love and Theft and Time Out of Mind (Columbia), a point of reference one imagines Wilson wouldn’t disown.

Regarding an appraisal of the album as jazz, Wilson doesn’t have much to say that she hasn’t already illustrated in song. But Burnett ventures a thought. “There are better and worse songs that come out of each period,” he says. “Some will wash down into the sand and some will stay at the tip of the pyramid. A singer of Cassandra’s caliber should be able to sing any kind of song that touches her, and that she can touch. And then it becomes what it is she does. And I think it would loosely become ‘jazz’-in the old, coarse sense of the word.”

Nevertheless, Thunderbird enters the world as a pop product, and it will be judged and tested accordingly. There are at least two songs on the album that have a chance at “penetrating the zeitgeist,” to use a phrase of Burnett’s. The first is “Go to Mexico,” a catchy electroacoustic groove tune loosely built on the album’s only sample, a recording of the Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indian tribe. The second is “It Would Be So Easy,” which isn’t hard to imagine in a luxury car commercial or on a fashion runway.

Tellingly, both of those songs are credited to Wilson, Ciancia and Elizondo. (Engineer Mike Piersante, an unsung hero of the album, also gets a credit on the latter of the two.) In other words, the best candidates for a pop single on Thunderbird were the products, originally, of spontaneous collective efforts. This says a lot about Wilson, but nothing her fans don’t already know.

Whether a broader audience will embrace the album is the question of the hour. Certainly there would be a kind of cosmic justice if it won over a sizeable portion of the millions who fell in love with Norah Jones. “Nothing would make me happier than for Cassandra Wilson to have a hit single,” says Burnett, who’s placing his bets on an edit of “Go to Mexico.” He adds: “She should be held in the highest esteem by our culture, and I don’t think people know about her yet. She should be up where Ella Fitzgerald was.”

Street doesn’t see why that couldn’t happen. “It just seems like a no-brainer: T Bone and Cassandra together. It’s like: Go sell a couple million records. Why wouldn’t you?” Lundvall, both predisposed and conditioned to taking a more cautious view about the album’s success, divulges that Blue Note has plans to “market the hell out of it.”

In February, a full two months before the album’s release, Ciancia was awakened by “Go to Mexico” on his clock radio, which was tuned to the Los Angeles station KCRW. At first he thought it was a dream.

The only person who professes not to be thinking about the album’s commericail potential is Wilson, and that’s entirely characteristic. “I didn’t get into this because I wanted to sell a lot of records or become a pop star,” she says. “I would have taken a totally different route. People say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if this song was played on the radio?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, it would be nice, but it’s OK if it’s not.’ Then they look at me strangely, like they think that maybe there’s something wrong with an artist not having that kind of ambition. But I’ve always been really honest about that. I’m not doing this for that. If it happens, then it’s great. It’s lagniappe; it’s icing. But if it doesn’t, I’m still really excited about what I do.”

The language is revealing: Wilson is nothing if not fascinated by the pure process of making music; “what I do” rather than what it brings. And in this regard, Thunderbird-with its new working methods, new cadre of collaborators and undeniably new sound-would seem a fortunate occurrence.

And a well-timed one; even, to borrow her words, a balm. This is never more palpable than on “Tarot,” which closes the album on Wilson’s acoustic guitar playing within a delicately balanced full ensemble. Amid a dreamlike wash of instruments, she strikes a ruminative tone:

I went to the tarot woman yesterday

She looked at my cards and told me what they say

In your future I see fortune and dreams fulfilled

But you are such a restless soul

And you always will

(Fold on hearts)

There’s no way to deny it

I can see in your eyes the loneliness

(Raise on kings)

You’ve been searching forever

For a lover that suits you the best

The melancholy in these lines, tempered by the sweetness of that contralto, dissolves as the chorus tumbles into view. “Don’t give up,” Wilson sings self-imploringly. “Don’t walk away. You’re just a little bit closer/than you were yesterday.”

Wilsonian Doctrine

Wilson’s impact on jazz and popular singing is immeasurable; consider the musical variety represented in the following list, an admittedly impressionistic rundown of 10 recnet albums that bear traces (sometimes subtle) of her influence.

India.Arie, India.Arie’s Song (Motown)

The singer-songwriter traffics in organic R&B (erstwhile neosoul), but she has often expressed her deep admiration for Wilson, who repaid the favor by including Arie on Belly of the Sun. The affinities are most obvious during Arie’s warm and transfixing live performances and on her 2001 debut, Acoustic Soul (Motown); but there are moments on this new release, a two-disc volume, that also justify the comparison.

Ann Dyer, When I Close My Eyes (Sunnyside)

Dyer, an expressive Bay Area vocalist, named her 1990s band No Good Time Fairies, after the Steve Coleman song heard on Wilson’s first album. The exploratory element of Wilson’s legacy clearly appeals most to Dyer, but so does the notion of a wide-open repertoire: Years ago, Dyer offered a radical revision of the Beatles’ Revolver, and this most recent release includes a take on Björk’s “Bachelorette.”

Norah Jones, Feels Like Home (Blue Note)

Who? Just kidding. No one would mistake Jones’ gently rootsy cosmopolitanism for Wilson’s more elemental fare, but the lineage, at least, is clear. (Street had a hand in producing Come Away With Me, her multi-platinum debut.) Conspiracy alert: Olu Dara has guest appeared on several of Wilson’s albums, and Daru Oda is a background singer on this sophomore Jones release. Coincidence? Surely not!

Sonya Kitchell, Words Came Back to Me (Velour)

This teenage singer-songwriter doesn’t bring Wilson to mind musically; she’s more strictly a Northeastern folkie. But her precocious acoustic-pop debut, which Starbucks has been plugging hard, is clearly aimed at a post-Norah world, which in turn is a post-Cassandra one. Got that?

Maroon, Who the Sky Betrays (Head Fulla Brains)

Hillary Maroon has cited Wilson as an influence, and it would seem that, like Dyer, she means the Wilson of M-BASE pedigree; the second release from this Brooklyn-based group deliberately leans to the experimental side. Repertory-stretching bonus: renditions of Radiohead’s “The Tourist” and Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.”

Rebecca Martin, People Behave Like Ballads (MaxJazz)

Martin plays guitar and mandolin and engages with top-shelf jazz musicians in an acoustic folk-rock vein. Her connection to Wilson is loose and perhaps a touch indirect: through the common prism of 1970s-era Joni Mitchell.

Raul Midón, State of Mind (Manhattan)

Cassandra is hardly the first influence you think of here-that would be Stevie Wonder, who helpfully makes a guest appearance-but Midón’s high-flying musicianship and acoustic lyricism are points of connection. His best song, “All in Your Mind,” isn’t hard to picture on a Wilson set list.

Gretchen Parlato, Gretchen Parlato (Available at

A graduate of the Thelonious Monk Institute and winner of the 2004 Monk Competition, Parlato has all the makings of jazz ascendancy. What she shares with Wilson isn’t a sound so much as a member-of-the-band ethos; she has held her own with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, and her rapport with the acoustic guitarist Lionel Loueke is very nearly profound.

Rhonda Richmond, Oshogbo Town (Ojah)

Richmond, who appeared on Belly of the Sun, is one of Wilson’s childhood friends and still a kindred spirit; in February, they performed together on a concert in Jackson that Richmond produced. This 2003 album teases out connections between African folk forms and Southern blues and soul; Richmond’s alto isn’t quite the gold mine that Wilson’s is, but it’s not such a far cry, either.

Lizz Wright, Dreaming Wide Awake (Verve)

It’s all here: the Southern roots, the rich alto, the rustic acoustic sound, even the hand of Craig Street. Dig her rendition of Neil Young’s “Old Man” for a spine-tingling resonance. Happily, Wright has proven her independence as a young artist; she may be a daughter of Cassandra, but she’s not afraid of that fact, and her own distinct identity never fails to emerge. Originally Published

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).