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A Fireside Chat With Cassandra Wilson

AAJ Staff By

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I have always had groups where I shared the stage with musicians because I need that. I need that kind of energy.
With the recent commercial viability of Diana Krall and Norah Jones, authentic jazz vocalists like Betty Carter and Billie Holiday seem remote and jazz yore. And although Abbey Lincoln maintains the standard of progression, the sheer barrage of lounge singers has consumed any impression. Hope exists, however, with Cassandra Wilson, matured in the M-Base doctrine and unpolluted by mainstream exploitation, Wilson (unedited and in her own words) continues to advance tradition to a modern accessibility that is terribly lacking in the improvised music of today.

Fred Jung: Let’s start from the beginning.

Cassandra Wilson: My father was a musician and I adored my father. I have been playing music since I was five years old. This has always been a passion for me.

FJ: How significant was your time with the M-Base Collective?

CW: I look at that time as being my formative years. It was a time where you take in as much as you can and learn as much as you can. It takes a while for an artist to really find their voice musically. I was really fortunate. I came to New York and started sitting in at various jam sessions. I met Steve Coleman at one of those jam sessions and he introduced me to his friends, musicians who were like-minded and searching for a new approach. It was an opportunity to share, not only ideas about music, but ideas about the business, the music business. It was a very exciting time in New York. We were out every night hanging out and talking about music. I couldn’t be who I am, I would not have done what I’ve done without those friends that I had in M-Base and that life.

FJ: Although there is a commonality to your work, each recording presents an audible evolution.

CW: I don’t see them as being different from one another because one project usually grows into another. Albums, for me, represent your life, what you are experiencing, what you are learning, what you are working out in your life. Each project is different based on the two year period that you are dealing with. An album really spans, you start doing it one year and it comes out in maybe five, six months. You work the album and then the album grows. If you are lucky, it evolves. The musicians take the music and extend the music that you hear on the CD and in the project. That in turn, gives birth to the next project.

FJ: What elements of individuality do you invite?

CW: I’m looking for very strong personalities. I’m looking for musicians that have a very distinctive voice and who are not afraid to take chances, musicians who are willing to paint outside of the lines, musicians who are responsible and who are going to see a project through to its end. Those are some of the things I look for.

FJ: The eclectic Belly of the Sun drew mostly on a non-jazz vernacular, lending to your “crossover” appeal, but perhaps fueling the urban myth that you are not a “jazz” singer.

CW: Belly of the Sun was very poignant for me, being able to go back home and be with musicians that I’ve worked with for a while and to see how they reacted to the environment. I love the songs on Belly of the Sun. They are very special songs for me. It’s a less produced extension of a previous CD, Blue Light ‘Til Dawn and New Moon Daughter.

FJ: And your latest, Glamoured, which features a compelling version of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy.”

CW: I think it is really very, aside from being very beautiful, it is very liquid. It is very fluid. I think there’s a richness in my voice. The way it is recorded, I really like the richness in my voice. I loved the textures. It is very much what its name is. It’s glamoured. It is music that comes from that state of being.

FJ: It is an interesting time to be on the Blue Note label with an exotic roster that includes Norah Jones, Van Morrison, Terence Blanchard, and Wynton Marsalis.

CW: Oh, yes, Fred. Absolutely, it is a wonderful label. I am very proud of the Blue Note label and I love Bruce Lundvall. He is an incredible man. He is a tremendous benefit. There is so much in this industry now that is so disposable. Executives move from company to company. It is rare that you find someone like Bruce Lundvall, who is so versed in the music and so respectful of the tradition. I just really count my blessings when I look at where I am now. I am very appreciative of Bruce and Blue Note.

FJ: Who is Cassandra Wilson?

CW: First and foremost, I am a musician. I think that is how I am viewed in terms of the community. I have always had groups where I shared the stage with musicians because I need that. I need that kind of energy. It is so important to me to have very strong musicians. It is very important to me to share the stage with them, the same way an instrumentalist would share the stage with the musicians in the band.

FJ: And the future?

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