Cassandra Wilson : Loverly

Loverly is being billed as Cassandra Wilson’s “return to jazz,” even if, following 2006’s Thunderbird, the T Bone Burnett-produced album on which Wilson more than flirted with electronic percussion and sampling, practically anything that adhered to standard instrumentation and relatively straightforward vocalizing would be a return to jazz.

Here she keeps things deliberately and smartly simple-the self-produced Loverly is as austere as Thunderbird was fussy. And with a setlist consisting entirely of standards, Wilson’s first such since 1988’s Blue Skies, it feels like a homecoming. Working with Marvin Sewell on guitars, Jason Moran on piano, longtime bassist Lonnie Plaxico, drummer Herlin Riley and Nigerian percussionist Lekan Babalola, with a small handful of guests, Loverly stands as one of Wilson’s coziest, loverly-est recordings. Which is not to say it isn’t daring-quite the opposite, it’s full of surprises.

For a singer whose previous covers have run from the Monkees and Hank Williams to U2 and Son House, the Great American Songbook would be way too confining for Wilson. Amidst the pop and Broadway numbers (the album title is drawn from My Fair Lady’s “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” given a midtempo, melancholic reading), she rips into back-to-back blues: a NOLA-fied “St. James Infirmary” that’s all funked-up drums and salacious guitar, and a slinky, nasty “Dust My Broom,” Robert Johnson via Elmore James, that quickly reminds that Wilson need not be smooth to be sexy. Her aerated take on Luiz Bonfa’s bossa-nova progenitor “Black Orpheus” smolders while it soothes, and even her treatment of the more standard standards diverges: “Caravan” positively rocks, and Fran Landesman’s paean to feeling like crap at the worst possible time, “Spring Can Really Hang You Up,” nothing but Wilson and Sewell’s acoustic, is dire enough to keep anyone indoors till summer.

As ever, Wilson’s flexibility takes what in other hands might have been rote exercise and transforms it into a new-thrill-every-minute experience.