Cassandra Wilson - Silver Pony (2010)


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By Nick Deriso

Cassandra Wilson, who consistently defies convention as this restless chanteuse, doesn't disappoint with Silver Pony—issued today on Blue Note as the long-awaited part-in studio, part-live followup to her celebrated Loverly.

She has the vocal phrasing, the dusky intellect, of Charlie Parker and the elastic intuition of Betty Carter. Yet, Wilson is no throwback. She writes her own music, and surrounds herself with top-shelf improvisers. Even when including songs from the canon—here, that includes “Lover Come Back to Me," and “St. James Infirmary"—Wilson has always approached them with a tinkerer's eye for disassembling and reanimating.

She's also taken chances on pop music, in the great tradition of Miles Davis, and uncovered unexpected revelations on “Blackbird," an acoustic Beatles song that takes flight on Silver Pony.

The album was borne out of time spent back home in the Deep South, shuttling back and forth between Wilson's birth city of Jackson, Miss., and a house in New Orleans as her mother fought through a final illness. Wilson then embarked on a 13-city European tour, from which several live cuts are included.

That adds an undercurrent of homecoming and of sadness, but doesn't keep Wilson and her intensely talented group of sidemen—notably the rhythm section of drummer Herlin Riley and bassist Reginald Veal, who've worked with Wynton and Branford Marsalis — from their appointed duties to swing, to sway, and to surprise.

Wilson makes a growling statement on the opener, a gritty take on “Lover Come Back to Me," signalling that this set will keep a firm grip on the dreams that survive our pain. They have some fun, too: Long-time guitarist Marvin Sewell takes an groovy, angular approach on “St. James Infirmary," reimaging the traditional tune as a riffy funk vehicle.

A portion of Silver Pony was also recorded at New Orleans' Piety Street studios, with producer John Fischbach (who previously worked on Loverly, the 2008 Grammy award-winning standards album). In these more intimate environs, Wilson's voice becomes quieter, darker still—turning “If It's Magic," for instance, into a moving plea of quiet desperation. Yet, surrounded by that blue-black gloaming, her band doesn't recede so much as begin to more fully assert itself.

Big Easy piano prodigy Jonathan Batiste adds a fizzy, fusion-era Chick Corea-sounding electric piano signature on the completely improvised “A Night in Seville." Percussionist Lekan Babalola, another alum from Loverly, then moves inside and around imaginative torrents of sound by guest saxophonist Ravi Coltrane on “Beneath a Silver Moon"—a new tune built up from Juan Tizol's “Caravan."

As has become her tradition over an eight-album stint at Blue Note, Wilson again includes a selection of deep-blues standards—Charlie Patton's “Saddle Up My Pony," presented with a pleasant clip-clop shuffle in concert; and “Forty Days and Forty Nights," closely associated with Muddy Waters.

These songs tie her back to those Mississippi roots, to Highway 51 and cotton fields, to her earliest memories of her family and her childhood. But again, Wilson's not overly careful with them, pulling them inside out and stretching their boundaries—as she had with dazzling earlier interpretations including Robert Johnson's “Come on In My Kitchen."

[Listen up! previews: Cassandra Wilson, with Ravi Coltrane, “Silver Moon"]

There is a simlar reimagining of the familiar Paul McCartney tune from 1968, as Sewell and Batiste perfectly augment Wilson's soaring horn-like scatting. “Blackbird" is freed from its original structure, and then from its original sentiment.

Once a song about longing for freedom, Wilson and Co. simply open the cage door and fly away, high over the open country roads of her youth—following in the wandering paths of Whitman, Guthrie and Kerourac, as rows of corn, cotton and soybeans fire past in shotgun rows of conformity.

They take it all in for a moment, in this last blast of invention, before the album's lovely, reflective final chapter—featuring a vocal turn by John Legend—arrives to close things out. “Watch the Sunrise" is about the hope that keeps a soul in motion, the new day that says anything is possible.

It's a fitting end to a recording that's as much about discovery as it is remembrance.

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