Cassandra Wilson is the most important jazz vocalist of the past thirty years.
I said it. I meant it. It is out in the open (not that this was any secret).
After an impressive jazz debut with Point of View
(JMT, 1985), Wilson would release seven more well- received, if not underrated, recordings before she changed the entire jazz vocals setting with Blue Light 'til Dawn
(Blue Note, 1993). Wilson's singing and instrumentation had evolved into an expansive and spacious sonic landscape modelled after Miles Davis
' earthy and provocative reading of the DuBose Heyward / George Gershwin song, "My Man's Gone Now" from We Want Miles
(Columbia, 1982). This sound was an aurally golden fleece that Davis chased through five jazz genres and over fifty years. It was Wilson who perfected it.
One of the hallmarks of Wilson's sound was her use of conventionally American Folk instruments dispersed among the traditional jazz instrumentation, all contained in 40 acres of Miles' Davis' "space." Spacious and expansive sound one can get out of the car and walk around inside. Resophonic guitars, slide guitars, banjos, upright pianos: Wilson's sound was one of a mixture of old and new. A musical eutectoid transformed into the perfect solution. Sparkling trumpet beside dead (no reverb) drumming made of a heady mix; miniature acoustic guitar against tenor saxophone...and Wilson populated her subsequent recordings with such novel formatting. New Moon Daughter
(Blue Note, 1995), Rendezvous
(with Jackie Terrason, Blue Note, 1998), and Traveling Miles
(Blue Note, 1999) perfected her approach while reaching its apex. Her releases were of such high quality that they could not be seriously questioned.
That is not to say that perfection could not wear thin. Wilson released an additional six searching recordings before the approaching Billie Holiday
. These were very good recordings in the guise of the logistics she set forth in the 1990s. And with the patience of the gods, Wilson planned this present project to be given birth on April 7, 2015, that would mark the centenary of the birth of Eleanora Fagan and that recording is Coming Forth By Day
. With this recording, Wilson proves that she cannot only improve on her past, but can send her art to its zenith and beyond. Not to put too fine a point on it, Coming Forth By Day
is a perfect
Wilson has left her organic roots and claimed the 21st Century in her music. The results are an ethereal musical climax to the memory of the legendary jazz vocalist Billie Holiday
. Worthy of mention at the outset are the individuals surrounding this recording. Nick Launay, Nick Cave's producer for the last decade, a new and ground-breaking sound is brought to the already evolutionary miracle of the Cassandra Wilson 1990s. What they have collectively done is perfect the deep-bottom sonic landscape flirted with by Bob Dylan
on this recent standards offering, Shadows in the Night
(Columbia, 2015). On that recording, Dylan brilliant recasts the pedal-steel guitar to build low register of dark chocolate and clove with a splash of bay rum and old whiskey, poured neat on the whole affair. What Wilson does on her recording is take Dylan's intention, light that on fire and let it burn. Coming Forth By Day
features eleven re- interpretations of the Great American Songbook associated with Holiday (both "standards" and Holiday originals) plus the Wilson original "Last Song (For Lester)," conceived as an homage from Billie to her musical soulmate, Lester Young
. Wilson recorded her Tour de Force
in Los Angeles at the Seedy Underbelly studios with guitarists T Bone Burnett and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, string arranger Van Dyke Parks and rhythm section from The Bad Seeds (drummer Thomas Wydler and bassist Martyn P. Casey).
This is considerably different from her more organic recordings of the 1990s. It is very much updated, and not in a cheap way. While updated, Wilson's atmospheric approach remains intact using her outstanding voice (as unique and singular at Holiday's) to defy space-time musically. If I was to make a 21st Century Film Noir, I would use this music for the soundtrack. It is music noir. There is a pungent and sensual darkness to this recording. This is forward-thinking arranging and orchestrating that favors deep hues and dark colors. It is slick without being cheap and clever without being too much so. There is a level of musical thinking above what Duke Ellington
considered "good" music. This is simply "it."
Ten standards and one original. What makes a perfect recording? First, the repertoire. One must be careful here. This is a well-trodden path and if the warhorses of the literature are to be presented, they must be scrubbed free of nostalgia and expectations and presented in a way that is not only novel, but translational. Second is theme. Intelligently conceived recordings enhance their own beauty and importance. Coming Forth by Day
was a no-brainer. Wilson and this material came together at the right time in an act of synergy hard to imagine, much less equal. And finally, third is presentation. It is hard to make the old new effectively. Wilson excels in all of these categories.
While these performances have few, if any, stylistic comparison, an internal analyses might illustrate the beauty of these treatments. So focused and refined is this vision of Wilson's, that this recital can be divide in three parts: the first that is traditional ballads (save they are anything but). "Don't explain" kicks the recording off with something that will not scare the pats off the listener (that comes later).
First and foremost, Wilson summons the deep blues in this music. It permeates every corner, nook and cranny of the music. Understanding this is the key to the rest of the disc. Think Eddie "Son" House before anything and this recording comes into focus. Her voice is not honey and morphine. It is just morphine... in a Sigmund Freud injection, and not just that. It is Morpheus... the god of dreams, the analogy, the simile, the metaphor. This is music of essence, not of tangibility. So don't waste your time looking for the tangible, fools. This music exist only in your most creative dreams.
"Don't Explain," "All of Me" "These Foolish Things" "I'll Be Seeing You" all catch Wilson honoring the naive and hopeful Holiday (but not too much). Holiday was much too worldly for that...that one who believed all would be okay before she learned otherwise. "All of Me" "These Foolish Things" "I'll Be Seeing You," these are the straightest pieces on the disc. Wilson's low register is employed to the maximum and every positive vibe of the past is pulled forth.
Then Wilson produces a post-Modern 1960s vibe that smacks of Percy Faith or Ray Conniff in an opium dream. Van Dyke Parks string arrangements, divine a sound that every Eisenhower baby and Clinton offspring will equally appreciate. "Your Go to My Head" is no longer a Charlie Parker
invitation to a listener. Instead, it is a Frank (as in Frank Sinatra
) invitation to bliss from Nelson Riddle. Wilson assimilates it into all that reflects the way things should be not as they are.
From there Wilson directs things in a slightly different direction. Think of an emulsion of the 21st century experience violently coupling with the Ray Conniff / Percy Faith white-bread vision of the Civil Rights Movement with the real thing. "You Go to My Head" "The Way You Look Tonight" "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" illustrated in, Wilson's performance, the work that remains to be done by all of us. "Your Go to My Head" and "Crazy He Calls me" are Mississippi Delta earth- rich thoughts that are more basic than the composers ever intended.
The centerpiece of the recording is the sublime ballad, "The Way You Look Tonight." There may be no more perfect song sung by anyone. Wilson and her handlers make it a piece of perfection that proves that when a piece is composed, the appropriate performer may not yet exist. Introduced by the sublime bass clarinet into a 1950's musical environment, Wilson sings slowly those words of love and longing. It is a perfect performance of a standard.
But Wilson reserves some spine rattling performances for a rare few pieces. "Billie's Blues" "Crazy He Calls Me" "Good Morning Heartache" "Strange Fruit" "last Song (For Lester). "Billie's Blues" is a transformed piece of 12-bars that is shot well ahead of us by ingenious production. The dirt and grit of Charlie Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson
are brought into the world of T Bone Burnette. Sex is no longer a fecund and aromatic act of procreation but an experience of pleasure enjoyed only by the gods. "Good Morning Heartache" is five minutes of the most terrifying Great American Songbook you will ever hear. This is the darkest part of the whole disc. Wilson is lowered to the very basic of human experience. She twists the African America experience into the real. Billie Holiday would tremble.
Aside from the Holiday parallel, Wilson's collection here amply show that the Great American Songbook is anything but dead. Every so often, an artist emerges as a breath of fresh air through the Songbook, thereby transforming it. Few efforts achieve the completeness and perfection of transformation that Coming Forth by Day
does. Bob Dylan's recent Shadows in the Night
does its part falling short with Dylan's less-than-perfect voice. Wilson's recording totally honors this approach, providing us a fine survey of not only Billie Holiday's oeuvre, but that of the Great American Songbook.