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Artist Profiles

Cassandra Wilson: Jazz Roots

By Published: July 12, 2008
For Wilson, an African American of Nigerian extraction ("if you want to call it Nigerian—those were the names that were given to those states," she points out), Yoruba percussion is as much a personal rediscovery as a musical expansion. "It was such a joy and really inspiring to work with [Lekan]. I think that as African Americans we're always searching for who we were before we came here. And when we hook up with someone like him, there is a certain recognition that happens that you can't really describe. It's such a wonderful feeling to know that not only do you have a history before you came here, but you have spiritual systems, you have art, you have culture, you have a wide array of things that you can draw on—it's like opening another door."

Also behind one of Wilson's many doors are decades of immersion in traditional American pop music—songs that revolve around the "fascinating harmony and melodies" that support the poetry of the lyrics. On Loverly Wilson does not tamper with this formula: Even on well-known tunes with non-traditional percussive lines ("Black Orpheus," "Caravan," "Till There Was You"), the groove provides the bedrock, but Wilson's soaring, clearly articulated vocals are what tower above. And of utmost importance, Wilson believes, are the lyrics, which, like the grooves she espouses, must issue from the intensely personal. "In order to deliver a piece of music, especially a piece of music that has lyrics, you have to have some sort of connection to the story behind it. Sometimes that may take years," Wilson reports, adding that "all singers will pick songs based on what their criteria are—and for me the criteria are almost always how I can tap into a song and how I can relate from experience in my life to that lyric."

But clearly Wilson does not experience the standard tunes on her new album in quite the same way as she did those on Blue Skies, where she draws from a more conventional jazz vocabulary and uses scat solos. Or perhaps her relationship to standards, the material on which she learned her craft, has changed—but there are no scats on the new disc.

"I associate scatting with bebop. And there are masters of that—Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Ella Fitzgerald—who...were reflecting the music of the time. They had so much vibrancy. What the instrumentalists were doing was so fresh and new to them that of course it was a contagious kind of thing... They were in that moment. I find that what we're doing now a lot of the time with jazz is still dealing with that moment and that was the moment for that generation. So it often comes across as being too deliberate. It doesn't have the same spark that it did for that generation when they were doing it... We're experiencing that music almost second-hand."

Cassandra Wilson

Determined that this CD would be of its own moment, Wilson took pains to create as relaxed a recording environment as possible for her band (besides Plaxico and Babalola, guitarist Marvin Sewell, pianist Jason Moran, bassist Reginald Veal, drummer Herlin Riley and backup singer Rhonda Richmond). She chose to record the album in a house in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, converting the home's many rooms into a makeshift recording studio, with the control room obscured from sight. "When you walk into a studio you usually have a very strong sense of the control room—it's almost like the Wizard of Oz," Wilson explains. "So I wanted to see what it would be like if...the engineers are virtually hidden." The result, Wilson reports, was a heightened camaraderie and an enhanced conversation among the musicians—and a sense of added intimacy for the listener. At times on the recording one can hear Wilson walk toward the mic, casually, as if she were singing to herself; at other times the jingle of a bracelet, an intake of breath, a rustle of clothing—perhaps Marie Laveau is passing by.

The puzzle that Cassandra Wilson poses now is how to interpret her stylistic shifts—is she taking vocal jazz in a new direction or harkening back to its origins? Maybe these two movements are not opposed, she suggests. "I think both things are happening at once. I'm not living in that time [when jazz began] and I'm thinking about different kinds of constructs, different ways of introducing what was there a long time ago. It's new, but it involves digging deeper, going back to a time that hasn't really been acknowledged." Until now.


Selected Discography

Cassandra Wilson, Loverly (Blue Note, 2008)
Jacky Terrasson/Cassandra Wilson, Rendezvous (Blue Note, 1997)
Cassandra Wilson, Blue Light 'Til Dawn (Blue Note, 1993)
M-Base Collective, Anatomy of a Groove (DIW, 1992)
Cassandra Wilson, Blue Skies (Winter&Winter, 1988)
Air, Air Show No. 1 (Black Saint, 1986)

Photo Credits
Top Photo: John Abbott
Bottom Photo: Paolo Soriani



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