Cassandra Wilson at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts

Patricia Myers BY

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Cassandra Wilson: "Coming Forth by Day, A Celebration of Billie Holiday"
Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts
Scottsdale, Arizona
February 21, 2015

Vocalist Cassandra Wilson delivered a modern homage in honor of the anniversary of Billie Holiday's 100th birthday. Her performance neither replicated the late singer's sound nor did it adhere to the jazz mode of that long-past era. Instead, it was a re-characterization of the songs that made Holiday famous from 1935 to 1959.

Those attending who may not have been aware of Wilson's career style of mixing jazz and blues with country and folk music might have been surprised at first, and perhaps dissatisfied, about how she treated Holiday's repertoire. But it soon became obvious to the 800-plus listeners that they were experiencing an exceptional artistic venture, rather than simply a recital of Lady Day's catalog.

"Coming Forth by Day" was the theme of the concert and also the title of Wilson's tribute album (Legacy/Sony Music, 2015). In both, Wilson recreated and refreshed tempos and phrasings of vintage songs, often spinning them into less familiar territory.

The two-tine Grammy Award-winner exhibited a supple contralto that was alternately satin-smooth and deeply husky. Her rendition of "You Go to My Head" was delivered in a contemporary samba style; "All of Me" was far beyond early Holiday styling, sung in an almost morose mood, nurtured by a bass clarinet solo. The languid warmth imbued into "The Way You Look tonight" and "I'll be Seeing You" best represented Holiday's early style, enhanced by the sextet's violinist.

Wilson's interpretation of "Good Morning Heartache" offered an appropriate tinge of sadness that this composition merited. "Crazy He Calls Me" and "These Foolish Things" were energized by bassist Lonnie Plaxico's resonance.

The most poignant moments of the evening were during "Don't Explain" and Wilson's new original, "Last Song (For Lester)" that represented Holiday's sadness at being barred from singing at the funeral of her beloved musical partner, Lester Young.

Although the members of Wilson's sextet were excellent musicians, their delivery occasionally distracted from her vocal stylings. In particular, a guitarist who rotated among four instruments (including a mandolin) played more in styles that evinced a folk-music feel rather than jazz or blues. Also, his modes and sound levels seemed to overpower Wilson and her other colleagues in too many instances.

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