Cassandra Wilson: Blue Light ‘Til Dawn

Released in late 1993, Blue Light ‘Til Dawn was a game-changer. It did not win Cassandra Wilson a Grammy (those came later), but it sold nearly a million copies. It shot her to the top of the DownBeat Critics Poll in the female vocalist category, where she has remained.

More significant than the album’s commercial success and its inauguration of a critical consensus was its new concept of repertoire. In 1994 it was not yet common for jazz singers to get material from singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison. “Black Crow” is a re-composition, a reliving of Mitchell’s story, every line transfigured by startling intervals and rhythmic displacements for a fresh, treacherous groove. “Tupelo Honey” is beyond sensuous. It is slowed to a crawl, lingered over, tasted. On the first level of meaning, they are the black versions of these songs. On a deeper level they are the universal human versions.

All jazz vocalists sing the blues, but not Robert Johnson blues. Wilson’s return to “Come on in My Kitchen” and “Hellhound on My Trail” were revelations in 1993. They proclaimed the relevance of shared history, almost forgotten.

Another breakthrough was the stark accompaniment. Many tunes have only two or three instruments. One of them is usually the acoustic guitar of Brandon Ross, that conjurer of rapt atmosphere and darkness. In open space, Wilson’s rich, smoky, endlessly expressive voice is set free.

This 20th Anniversary Edition was remastered by Greg Calbi and the original producer, Craig Street. The sound is more clear and alive. There are three previously unreleased concert tracks “recorded somewhere in Europe in 1994.” “Black Crow” has different instrumentation and edgier energy than the studio version. “Tupelo Honey” has a piercing, aching violin solo by Charles Burnham. “Skylark” is like a nine-minute sigh. Thousands of jazz vocal albums have come into the world in the last 20 years. Very few possess the permanence of Blue Light ‘Til Dawn.