Enjoy Jazz Festival: Days 7-10, October 26-29, 2009
There was a time when Cassandra Wilson was breaking ground...and was more than a little hungry. Sadly those days are now gone, as her sold out performance in Ludwigshafen's sumptuous, 1300-seater Theater im PFalzbau, on October 29, 2009 demonstrated. Following a lengthy introduction to her interpretation of Duke Ellington's enduring classic, "Caravan"her band taking well over five minutes to go from complete freedom to its dark, sensual groovea voice-over announced, "Good evening everyone; please welcome Grammy Award-winner...Cassandra Wilson." Wilson arrived onstage to, of course, tremendous applause and, as ever, her voice was deep, full and spare as she delivered the song in a completely personal way, completely avoiding the melismatic delivery so prevalent in today's post-American Idol landscape.
l:r: Marvin Sewell, Cassandra Wilson, Reginald Veal
But that has always been one of her most appealing characteristics. With a voice like hers, less truly is more and, as Wilson also demonstrated in her 2008 performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival, she can transcend any deficiencies in her band. When Cassandra Wilson opens her mouth, all is forgiven.
Unfortunately, during her 105-minute performance in Mannheim, she opened her mouth far too little. Like her Montreal performancebut to an even greater extentthe arrangements were bloated affairs, oftentimes taking a long time to get to the heart of the song and just as much time finding their way to the end. The blame lies clearly with Wilson's musical director, guitarist Marvin Sewell, who simply doesn't have what it takes to sustain the lengthy solos he afforded himself throughout the set. He's not a bad player, and possesses a particularly appealing tone on slide guitar, but on songs like the funky "St. James Infirmary Blues," he took endless chorus-after-chorus, speaking far too much in contrast to Wilson's far too little.
On the other hand, percussionist Lekan Babalola was more restrained and less obvious in Mannheim, even on a reprise of The Beatles' "'Til There Was You" where, in Montreal, he, well, rang a bell every time Wilson sang, "There were bells on the hill." Jonathan Batistewho was promising but not fully formed in Montrealhas evolved into a more impressive pianist, with tasteful accompaniment, and solos that were consistently concise and to the point. The brevity of his solos was likely defined by Sewell's arrangements, but the guitarist could learn a thing or two from the success of Batiste's more succinct soloing.
l:r: Marvin Sewell, Cassandra Wilson, Reginald Veal, Herlin Riley
Bassist Reginald Veala longtime Wilson band mate alongside Sewellwas, as always, a fine anchor, but drummer Herlin Riley, like Sewell, could have used a chill pill. In contrast to E.J. Strickland from Wilson's Montreal show, Riley may have also been an impressive player, but it was as much or more about show as it was the music, and that's where the entire performance got into trouble. Far too slick, far too contrivedeven down to both the set closer and encore ending the same way, with members of the band leaving the stage one-by-one, just in a different orderwhen Wilson sang it was still a thing of dark, husky beauty. But even she spent more time performing than singing, leaving the unsatisfied feeling that she'd be far better were she to return to the more imaginative arrangements and rawer, yet still marvelously restrained delivery of classic albums like Blue Light 'Til Dawn (Blue Note, 1993) and New Moon Daughter (Blue Note, 1996).
AAJ's final Enjoy Jazz piece will cover a one-day Punkt festival featuring performances by Ensemble Modern, Sweet Billy Pilgrim and Jon Hassell and Maarifa Street, with remixes by artists including Jan Bang, Erik Honoré, Sidsel Endresen, Eivind Aarset, J. Peter Schwalm and Kammerflimmer Kollektief.
All Photos: John Kelman