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Cassandra Wilson: The New Standard

Cassandra Wilson (photo: Jimmy Katz)
Cassandra Wilson (photo: Jimmy Katz)
Cassandra Wilson
Cassandra Wilson

When Cassandra Wilson played New York City’s Blue Note in February, a lot was riding on her week of shows. She was introducing a new album, Belly of the Sun (Blue Note), her first in three years, and a new band, her first in nine years without music director Lonnie Plaxico. And she was pushing her unorthodox approach even further, a style that had won an enthusiastic audience but had divided jazz critics between those who hailed her as a leading innovator and those who dismissed her as a crossover compromiser.

Wilson looked fabulous as she took the stage opening night. She wore a rumpled blue shirt over a black-velvet blouse and black high-heel boots; her almond-frosted dreadlocks were bundled in the back and spilled down her neck. She peered at the audience from under her heavy-lidded eyes and cracked one of her signature half-smiles as if she had just heard a juicy bit of gossip about each and every one of us.

There were no keyboards, horns or trap drums on stage; two hand drummers, two guitarists and a bassist flanked Wilson. The band stirred up a groove that didn’t snap, crackle and pop with big accents like your usual jazz combo; instead the rhythms rippled in overlapping patterns of small accents as if the music were coming from Brazil, Haiti or Louisiana rather than New York, Chicago or L.A.

When Wilson started singing, she didn’t lock into those undulating beats; rather she held out her smoky contralto in long, drawn-out syllables that created a dramatic tension against the jittery pulse. The words she sang, “I pulled into Nazareth/I was feeling about half-past dead,” were instantly familiar but not from any jazz book.

These are the opening lines from the folk-rock classic “The Weight,” introduced by the Band and remade so memorably by Aretha Franklin. But no one had ever sung it like this-with a Brazilian-Caribbean beat and a slow-blues vocal as thick as Mississippi mud.

Right there, in the opening moments of the show, was all the evidence one needed to argue for Wilson as a major jazz innovator. She has completely revamped jazz singing-the book, the beat, the very sound of the voice.

When Wilson first emerged in the late ’80s, jazz vocals had been stuck in a time warp. The template of repertoire, rhythm and delivery defined by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan in the ’40s had remained near constant while everything else in jazz was changing around it. Even Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln, two of Wilson’s biggest heroes, refined that template without fundamentally altering it.

Wilson has changed it all, and she’s continuing to shake things up with her new CD. Belly of the Sun begins with “The Weight” and proceeds to feature tunes by Mississippi Fred McDowell, Bob Dylan and Wilson herself. It prominently features such unlikely jazz instruments as mandolin, banjo, bouzouki and resonator guitar; no horn is heard until the 12th track. And the tension between the purring, moaning vocals and the rippling hand drums is sharper than ever.

“I don’t think you have to have a piano trio for it to be jazz,” Wilson insists. “We’ve heard that ride cymbal doing that 4/4 thing so much that we’ve come to believe that that is jazz. I don’t believe it. Jazz is not a certain repertoire or instrumentation; it’s about being truly in the moment and being able to improvise, being able to swing and drawing on the blues. We do all those things.”

It’s 11:30 a.m.-early morning by the jazz clock-the day before her Blue Note opening, and Wilson is seated in the corner booth of Dylan Prime, a restaurant that’s just a short stroll from her Tribeca apartment. Wearing a black turtleneck and dangling orange-bead earrings, she leans over a steaming mug of tea and ponders each question with the same patience she brings to her singing. When she grabs hold of an idea, she draws it out the way she does a note.

“Some people want to lock jazz up in an ivory tower where there’s no place to breathe or grow,” she complains. “If the music has to be a certain way, if you have to do Cole Porter and Irving Berlin tunes, you’re just recycling the same music over and over again.

“When people say, ‘The new pop songs aren’t as good as the old pop songs,’ I say, ‘Listen again.’ It’s just ridiculous to think that good songwriting ended in the ’50s. We’re in 2002, and you’re telling me no one has written a good melody and good lyrics in 50 years? It’s so liberating to look outside the traditional jazz book for material.”

No singer has been more aggressive or consistent in expanding the jazz book than Wilson. When she moved to New Jersey in 1982, she started gigging as a jazz singer in nearby Manhattan. One night she sang “Cherokee” at a jazz-club tribute to Charlie Parker, and afterward the alto saxophonist Steve Coleman came over and struck up a conversation.

“He told me bebop is important,” Wilson recounts, “but he said it was even more important that I create my own music and my own style. He said I’d never be noticed if I kept doing that same repertoire and that same style from another era; so many singers were doing those same Tin Pan Alley tunes.”

It was a life-changing conversation, and Wilson began to hang out with Coleman and friends like Greg Osby, Geri Allen, Lonnie Plaxico and Jean-Paul Bourelly, who made up Brooklyn’s

M-Base movement. Unlike so many singers who combined jazz and R&B by simplifying everything, Wilson combined the two genres by complicating everything-keeping the funky beats and the altered chords, the gospel wail and the improvised scatting. And she started to write original material, either by herself or with Coleman, Bourelly and her band.

“I had never heard of a female jazz vocalist other than Abbey Lincoln writing her own material,” Wilson says. “The more songwriting I did, the more I loved it. You’re able to create a vehicle specifically for your own voice, specifically for your own experiences. Not that you can’t express your experiences through other people’s material, but with your own songs less tailoring is required.”

Wilson recorded six M-Base-dominated albums for JMT Records and a one-off project for DIW/Columbia, but in 1993 she signed with Blue Note and decided it was time for a major overhaul of her music. She hired a new band and found a new producer, Craig Street, who helped her find her way back home to the music of her youth.

“Craig did this Freudian thing,” she recalls, “and had me lie on a couch as he asked me questions about how I felt about the music I had grown up with. I told him about playing Joni Mitchell songs on guitar while I was in college in Mississippi and said, ‘But how am I going to be a jazz vocalist and do the folk thing?’ He said, ‘Why not? It’s who you are.’ So I decided to come out of the closet.”

On the two albums that Street produced, 1993’s Blue Light ‘Til Dawn and 1995’s New Moon Daughter, Wilson tackled songs by Mitchell, Van Morrison, U2, Hank Williams, Neil Young, the Monkees, the Stylistics, Ann Peebles, Robert Johnson and Son House, and she made them all sound comfortable in a jazz setting.

On her frequent guest appearances during the ’90s, Wilson sang Muddy Waters with Javon Jackson, the Zombies with Kurt Elling, the Temptations with Regina Carter, Elvis Costello with Bill Frisell, Prince and the Beatles with Bob Belden, Aretha Franklin with David Sanborn, Afro-pop with Angélique Kidjo and hip-hop with the Roots.

“I think these songs stand up musically,” Wilson argues. “Joni Mitchell writes great melodies and great chord changes. She writes very freely, maybe because she’s unschooled, and the things she does with guitar tunings have always fascinated me. And the language that she and Bob Dylan use is so powerful. Their lyrics are connected to folk, the common folk, whereas Cole Porter and Harold Arlen are more connected to the wealthy, the bon vivant. Dylan, Mitchell and Robbie Robertson [of the Band] are writing for the disaffected, discontented and disenfranchised; they’re saying, ‘Hey, it’s not perfect down here; we have some demons to deal with.’

“And the blues-it used to be that jazz artists prided themselves on knowing the blues. But how many young jazz musicians are willing to transcribe Robert Johnson or Blind Lemon Jefferson the way they transcribe Bird or Trane? You can’t tell me that this music is too common or too easy. Those songs are bottomless.

“And don’t talk to me about sophisticated harmonies; you can always change the chords. That’s what I do-I’m a jazz musician; I live for chord substitutions. If Ella Fitzgerald could turn a nursery rhyme like “A Tisket a Tasket” into a jazz song, what can’t we use?

“Have you ever heard the original version of ‘Green Dolphin Street’? It’s your standard movie theme song, but someone said, ‘I can change these chords and make it interesting.’ That’s what John Coltrane did with ‘My Favorite Things.’ He said, ‘I like this melody, but I’ll put a minor feel in there and an Indian raga, then I’ll hold that pedal point forever.'”

Along with Wilson’s new repertoire came a new way of singing. Notes were no longer flung like dishes; they were kneaded and stretched as if they were still wet clay. Instead of singing like a piano, she sang more like an organ, trading in the usual percussive attack for a more sustained, rounded approach to each note.

On Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “You Gotta Move” from Belly of the Sun, for example, she pulls and twists at the line endings. “You may be high,” she sings, and the “high” slides up and over an extra beat. “You may be low,” she adds, and the “low” tumbles off a cliff. “You may be down,” she sympathizes, “no place to go,” and the “go” is held until a hint of despair creeps in. “But when the Lord”-the single syllable of “Lord” marches in on two notes like a monarch-“gets ready”-“ready” falls down like a judge’s gavel-“you gotta move”-and the “move” trails off like a train disappearing down the track.

There were two main sources for Wilson’s new vocal style. One was in the Mississippi Delta, where singers like Robert Johnson, Son House and Muddy Waters had blurred the boundaries between singing, the moaning of despair and the moaning of orgasm. The other was postwar New York, where Billie Holiday and Miles Davis gave birth to a cool alternative to hot bebop.

“What I’m doing is more a Billie way of singing,” Wilson explains. “Billie was so different from Ella and Sarah. It was not based on dexterity so much as on the roundness of her tone, the color inside the voice. And how much of her life is in that? When you concentrate on singing really fast or imitating horns, the tone becomes less important. But when you take time to sing the song; you have to leave spaces in it.

“Those spaces invite an audience into the sound you’re creating. Being a Southerner, I’m probably predisposed to that slower, thicker sort of sound; that ‘built for comfort not for speed’ kind of thing. I’m taking what Billie did and using it to create longer lines where I can sail on what the rhythm section is doing. I want the option of locking in with them on certain passages and floating above them on others; that way I can create tension and release it.

“And, of course, when I went back to the blues in Mississippi, that changed how I sing. I think a lot of jazz musicians are afraid of the blues, because there’s a certain emotional vulnerability when you get into this material. It’s so bare that you really have to be inventive; you can’t rely on the usual jazz vocabulary of quoting melodies and running scales and going, ‘scooby-dooby-doo.’ That’s why a lot of jazz musicians feel safer keeping an academic distance from the blues.

“I’ve done a lot of jerky singing in the past,” she adds, “but now I’m hearing something different. It has something to do with the fact that I’ve been listening to Miles Davis so much over the past few years. I feel the need to stretch things out more and savor a note, especially if it’s a good note that’s really singing with the other instruments. It’s not always the same note every night, but when I hear a note really ringing, I hold on to it and let it enjoy a long decay.”

The longer Wilson held out those notes and savored their lingering overtones, the more she found herself fighting against musicians who wanted to cover up every vacant space. She had a special problem with drummers, whose splashy cymbals ate up a lot of sonic territory. She didn’t know what to do until producer Craig Street came to the rescue.

“Craig taught me something very important about drums,” she acknowledges. “I’d always assumed that you had to work with a regular drum kit. But on Blue Light ‘Til Dawn and New Moon Daughter, I realized that I could hear more of the overtones and undertones of my voice if I didn’t have the kit. What was getting in the way was not the drumheads but the cymbals. It’s easier for a horn player to work with cymbals, because a horn has a narrower aural focus and can cut through. But the human voice is multitimbral, and all those other tones get lost in a wash of cymbals-especially my voice, which is a contralto and in the same range. Even the snare and the hi-hat get in the way. And these young drummers are trying so hard to sound like Tony Williams and Elvin Jones that they don’t know how to use brushes or mallets, how to work with a singer. There’s something about the way they’re constantly pushing the tempo with the ride cymbal that gets on my nerves.

“When I got rid of the kit and started using hand drums, it led to different patterns. The conga player states the main rhythmic pulse, but the percussionist doesn’t play the same thing; he plays something complementary. So you have that push and pull without all that cymbal noise. When we’re working out arrangements, if I hear something I can’t float over, we rework it so there’s enough space for my voice. And these different drum patterns led us to Brazilian music.”

The new album features Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Waters of March” and James Taylor’s “Only a Dream in Rio,” and it was scheduled to include Caetano Veloso’s “Little Lion” until the song was pulled from the disc at the last minute. With two hand drummers and two guitarists, Wilson’s band is well designed for this repertoire and she skips through it with a lilting finesse. She sang all three songs at the Blue Note, and when she delivered Jobim’s line about “the joy in your heart,” she leaned out over the stage edge as if to press the point home.

“I’ve always loved Brazilian music,” she says. “There’s a natural connection between bossa nova and jazz-they both come from Afro-European cultures; they both emphasize rhythm and rely on improvisation.”

But the exotic land that had the biggest influence on Belly in the Sun was her native Mississippi. Wilson was born there in Jackson 46 years ago, the daughter of Herman Fowlkes, a postman, and Mary Fowlkes, a teacher. They lived in the city, but their next-door neighbor had chickens in the yard, and Wilson’s grandmother went into the woods behind their house every day to gather herbs for cooking and healing.

“I only came inside to sleep, eat and change my clothes,” the former tomboy remembers. “There was a closeness to nature that we as African-Americans have lost. We have become dangerously urbanized. This environment is not healthy for anybody, but especially for us, because we can’t escape as easily as a lot of white people who can jump in the car and go visit grandma. Our children are surrounded by concrete, when nature should be the first instructor for the young.”

Wilson was a maverick even as a teenager. Instead of going to predominantly black Jackson State College, she went to the city’s predominantly white Millsaps College “to investigate white people and study their habits, almost like a National Geographic expedition.” She studied Camus and Hegel in the classroom and Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan back in the dorm.

She dropped out of Millsaps in 1975, moved to Little Rock to front a blues-rock band, returned to Jackson in 1978, enrolled in Jackson State and graduated in 1980. During her second fling at college, she formed a folk band called Past, Present & Future. Drawing inspiration from Mitchell, Dylan, Nina Simone and Richie Havens, the quartet featured Wilson on acoustic guitar and vocals, Rhonda Richmond on violin and keyboards, Niecie Evers (Medgar’s niece) on congas, and Nellie McInnis on bass. Even today she thinks of Jackson as “home.”

“By the end of 1999,” Wilson says, “I was exhausted. I had done four albums since 1993, each followed by a long tour and one led right into the next. So I needed to take some time off, and I went home to get my bearings. I always go home when I want to gather the information I need to move forward. It’s such a different pace from here in New York; you have time for long conversations over big meals. The lifestyle is so gracious that it gives you time to reflect.

“The other thing I like about Mississippi is that I’m nobody down there. We always joke that Michael Jackson could walk down the street in Jackson and people would go, ‘Oh, that’s Michael Jackson,’ and keep on walking. People there are not easily impressed. So when people spend time with you, you know it’s because of you and not because of what you do.”

As the Christmas holidays of 1999 spilled over into 2000, Wilson reconnected with the members of her college folk band. The returning prodigal daughter was so impressed with the songs Richmond was writing and singing that Wilson decided to help her former bandmate make a record.

Wilson set up shop at a Jackson studio as Richmond recorded six of her own compositions plus songs by Nina Simone, Duke Ellington and Muddy Waters. Not only did Wilson produce and sing harmony on the album, Oshogbo Town, but she also formed Ojah Records to put it out last year. (It can be ordered from Wilson’s Web site,

“I don’t own any of my own masters,” Wilson laments, “and ownership is so important in this business. So I wanted to start a company where I could own something. By keeping the overhead low, I can make a profit without having to sell a lot of copies. I like the idea of keeping it small.

“I haven’t signed anyone else yet, but I’m looking at some people. I want to document some of the great musicians in Mississippi who choose never to leave. I know it contradicts the stereotype, but life is so seductive down there that if people can play music and support themselves, they never want to leave.”

After recording Richmond early in 2000 and making the rounds of the jazz-festival circuit that summer, Wilson overhauled her band in the fall. Lonnie Plaxico, her bassist and musical director since 1993, was ready to be a bandleader in his own right. When he left, he took pianist George Colligan and drummer Lionel Cordew with him.

Wilson held on to guitarist Marvin Sewell and percussionist Jeffrey Haynes and decided to return to her twin-guitar, twin-percussion lineup of the mid-’90s. So she brought guitarist Kevin Breit, percussionist Cyro Baptista and bassist Mark Peterson-all of whom had worked on New Moon Daughter-back into the band, not only for the recording sessions but also for the live shows.

“A lot of times the label wants you to use famous names in the studio,” she says, “and then save money on the road by hiring younger, unknown guys. But it breaks up the continuity if you don’t use your studio band on the road. It’s more work because you have to teach the new people the songs, and then it doesn’t sound the same anyway. I’m fortunate because I don’t get that kind of pressure from Blue Note.”

As she considered how to best use this new band, Wilson remembered how much she had enjoyed working in Mississippi on Richmond’s album. But for Belly of the Sun she wanted to get out of Jackson and up into the heart of the Delta. There are no state-of-the-art studios in that northwest corner of the state, so she decided to record in the old Clarksdale train depot, the same spot where so many sharecroppers bought a one-way ticket for Chicago in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Her engineer, Danny Kopelson, set up a mobile recording truck outside, and Wilson went to work.

“I wanted to get my musicians out of New York,” she explains. “I wanted to take them down to Mississippi and show them the ‘crossroads.’ These are such great musicians that I knew they could play anywhere; the important thing was that they absorb the emotion of where I come from, that they put the rhythm of Clarksdale into their music. I don’t think the record would have sounded the same if we hadn’t gone down there.”

While she was down there, Wilson discovered Abie “Boogaloo” Ames, a member of the Charles Brown/Champion Jack Dupree schools of mid-century jazz-blues piano. Ames, who died earlier this year at 81, joins Wilson for an unaccompanied voice-and-piano version of “Darkness on the Delta.” If it sounds like two utterly relaxed people sitting side-by-side on the piano bench, just fooling around, that’s because it is.

More local talent got involved when Wilson recorded one of Richmond’s songs, “Road So Clear”; the composer played piano and Mississippian Olu Dara played trumpet, the only trace of a horn on the whole disc. And when the band got kicked out of the depot to accommodate a previously scheduled wedding reception, Wilson dragged everyone into a nearby boxcar for echo-heavy treatments of “You Gotta Move” and Robert Johnson’s “Hot Tamales.”

Last fall, Wilson found herself back in New York in her new neighborhood of Tribeca. After years of living in Harlem, she had moved downtown to experience a different slice of New York culture-and to enjoy better take-out delivery, she adds. On the morning of Sept. 11, however, her manager Michael Simanga called her and told her to look outside her window.

“I looked out,” she recalls, “and there were all these businessmen walking and running, which is something you never see on my street. So I turned on the TV and saw what they were running from-the World Trade Center, only eight blocks away. It was like being in a really bad movie; it was terrifying and exciting at the same time. The whole city had been brought to its knees.

“As Americans, we always feel that we’re secure, that someone was taking care of the bad guys before they got to us. That day we all felt absolutely vulnerable. And out of that vulnerability came some amazing displays of humanity. Something strange kicked in for me, and I decided not to move. I felt a protectiveness for my new ‘hood. This was my home now, and I didn’t want to run away from home.”

Out of those experiences came a new song, “Just Another Parade.” “Yesterday’s news,” Wilson wrote over a skipping acoustic-guitar melody, “is tomorrow’s blues, but today I am alive/Today I did much more than survive.” As soon as she wrote it, she knew it was the song she had been seeking for her scheduled duet with new folk-soul star India.Arie. They quickly cut it in New York and added it to Belly of the Sun.

Arie is just one of the young female singers, along with Jill Scott, Norah Jones, Patricia Barber and others, who seem to be taking their cue from Wilson’s unorthodox approach to repertoire, songwriting, arrangement and delivery. These fellow travelers suggest that Wilson is not merely blazing a divergent path for herself but may be launching a whole new subgenre.

“Today you have a lot of strong, self-reliant women in the music,” Wilson argues, “and you can’t expect them to keep singing the songbook of the ’30s and ’40s. Those lyrics may have been appropriate for their time, but I was always taught that jazz was all about being in the moment. It has always been important to me to be relevant to my own time, to express my own feelings.

“When you canonize a certain group of songs and a certain way of singing, you don’t give the singer enough room to change. And if a musician can’t experiment and improvise, how can this be jazz? Someone has to push the boundaries of the music forward. Maybe that’s what I’m supposed to do.” Originally Published

Geoffrey Himes

Geoffrey Himes has written about jazz and other genres of music on a regular basis for the Washington Post since 1977 and has also written for JazzTimes, Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Public Radio, and others. His book on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A., was published by Continuum Books in 2005 and he’s currently working on a major book for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2015), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards.