Albany, New York
March 22, 2009
"The music has a wonderful life beyond the recording," said renowned singer Cassandra Wilson about the music on her Grammy-winning CD from last year, Loverly. She spoke those words just days before her band made a tour stop at The Egg concert venue in Albany, NY, on March 22.
"It continues to grow and evolve. Really special and interesting things are happening with this project," she continued.
She was right, of course.
The band tore through a lot of the material from Loverly and a couple other chestnuts, meaning that most of the material was standards. But standards in the hands (and heart) of Cassandra Wilson aren't that standard.
Wilson's voice remains one of the richest and immediately identifiable sounds in music, deep and lush. It seems one note sung in the right place over a single chord can evoke a mood. And she toys with that ability to woo the listener. No lyric phrase is ever repeated the same way. Ever. No matter how many vocal choruses. She's always poking some other spot on the pillow, as if to experience what that might feel like, then she goes with her instinct and it comes out right.
She also is touring with a band that is Tight! Headed by long-time musical director Marvin Sewell on electric and acoustic guitars, the band is with her every step of the way. And she is with them. When not singing, she openly relishes their drive and creativity. She lets them playit's not just singer with a music background. In concert, each piece is an arrangement within which vocals are part of the picture being painted.
The group kicked off the 90-minute set with "Caravan," but it started off with Sewell playing a southern blues on slide, then, as drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Lekan Babalola joined in, it became music to a caravan march through an African desert. Sewell's solo later was a soaring rock music, more akin to Santana than Charlie Christian. He also blew hot blues notes through "A Sleepin' Bee." His guitar work throughout was terrific.
"Lover Come Back to Me" showed Wilson's improvisational ways with a lyric. She played with the rhythm, each successive phrase having its own cadence, but each tied to the next. Pauses. Staccato phrases. Soft slurs. Delicious. "Manha de Carnival" showed her in soft, sweet, smoky, sensual form, slowly delivering the American lyric to the popular song from "Black Orpheus."
The Nat Cole-associated standard "Sweet Lorraine," a duet with pianist Jonathan Batiste, was the closest she stayed to singing straight. There was delightful interplay between the two. The Billie Holiday vehicle "Them There Eyes," like "Lorraine," was also not from Loverly, but it was a superior up-tempo number in which Wilson was perhaps her most playful.
The highlights were the bluesiest numbers of the evening. "St. James Infirmary" was the funkiest, most down-home version imaginable. The entire group lent a New Orleans welcome to the music and melted the house. Sewell wailed on electric slide guitar. The sound of the band as a whole swelled The Egg and grooved the crowd.
Similarly, bluesman Robert Johnson's "Dust My Broom" smoked, marked by more soulful blues licks from Sewell. The latter evokes a vocal quality with his electric slide work. Wilson's hip blues vocals carried the tune across the jazz stream and into the best blues.
The music from her award-winning disk is much more dynamic live, as one would expect from a creative artist. The band is superb, and its leader is, yet again, remarkable.
She can flat-out do it.