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A Boston Jazz Weekend, Part One

Cassandra Wilson, Berklee Performance Center, 4-11-15

Cassandra Wilson
Cassandra Wilson

Spring appears to have finally sprung in Boston. After a miserable winter of record-breaking snowfall and what seemed like weekly blizzards-and yet another batch of flurries as recently as last Wednesday-the city burst forth this past weekend with a sudden, spectacular wealth of high-profile jazz, largely courtesy of the invaluable nonprofit arts promoters World Music/CRASHarts and the Celebrity Series of Boston. Those organizations respectively brought Cassandra Wilson’s tribute to Billie Holiday and the duo performance of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock to town on Saturday and Sunday. Meanwhile, the Vijay Iyer Trio was celebrating its terrific new album Break Stuff with two sets nightly on Friday and Saturday at the Regattabar, plus a question-and-answer session at nearby Harvard University on Friday afternoon.

The two concert-hall shows both essentially celebrated jazz legends. Wilson’s took place Saturday at the Berklee Performance Center, with the program consisting of 11 of the 12 songs from her spanking new April 7 release, Coming Forth by Day, their order shuffled slightly (and “Strange Fruit” the lone omission). She started the set, unlike the album, with “The Way You Look Tonight,” which another singer born, like Holiday, in 1915-Frank Sinatra-had had some success with. (Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins recorded a particularly memorable instrumental version of the tune together as well, in 1954.) Robby Marshall started things off on bass clarinet, which he would play as much as his tenor saxophone as the evening progressed, and the rest of the band-Kevin Breit on guitars, Charlie Burnham on violin, Henry Hey subbing for Jon Cowherd on piano and keyboards, Wilson’s longtime musical director Lonnie Plaxico on upright bass, and Davidé DiRenzo on drums-gradually joining in before Wilson made her stylish entrance in a leopard print and shades.

She commented on those sunglasses two songs into the set, noting that the band had played the Apollo Theater in New York the night before. “Maybe we stayed out a little late,” she explained with a smile, which prompted Breit to don shades of his own and begin comically mugging and miming taking repeated pulls from a bottle. The set’s between-songs banter was generally lighthearted, but the material itself was darker and not at all by-the-book covers of songs associated with Holiday. Wilson has long since established a sound all her own, with a voice jazz journalist Howard Mandel once compared to malted milk (presumably for its husky, aerated sweetness) and a seductive, slow-motion approach to rhythm more akin to molasses. Her band has a sound of its own, too, and it gets to stretch out in performance more than on albums. “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” had a rocking guitar break from Breit, Burnham made the most of brief violin features on “Crazy She Calls Me” and “These Foolish Things,” Hey offered a nice piano intro on “All of Me,” DiRenzo sped up the drum tempo on “Crazy He Calls Me” (while Wilson kept things slo-mo above him) … and Plaxico, whose working relationship with Wilson dates back to their M-Base days (with Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Geri Allen, et al.), quietly focused on keeping it all anchored.

That expanded instrumental work and Wilson’s exceptional stage presence-her expressive face visually amplifying her inventive phrasing, her barefooted dancing beside a soloist and otherwise grooving to the music-brought an extra dimension to the already excellent material on the album. The set built toward two highlights: “Last Song (For Lester),” which Wilson noted was written in the recording studio, inspired by the tale of Holiday having been refused permission to sing at Lester Young’s memorial service (which ended with Marshall blowing a bit of breathy, Prez-like tenor); and “Billie’s Blues,” the lone Holiday original, whose straight-talking bluntness had a comic tinge to it (and which had Marshall at one point blowing his clarinet and bass clarinet simultaneously, like an extremely understated Rahsaan Roland Kirk). The night’s encore, sensibly enough, was “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

This is part one of a two-part column covering a weekend of high-profile jazz programming in Boston. For part two, click here.

Originally Published