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Cassandra Wilson: Thunderbird

C. Michael Bailey By

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Jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson reached the fulcrum of her career with the refreshingly organic Blue Light 'Til Dawn. Her releases before this 1993 Blue Note debut, including M-Base Collective collaborations in the 1980s, were warmly received if not completely inspired. With Blue Light, Wilson changed her creative paradigm, performing older and more eclectic music in a ferociously rustic and transmogrified manner. This spirit infused Wilson's next four Blue Note recordings, highlighting her expansive vocal palette. With the release of her sixth Blue Note recording, Glamoured, ten years later, the singer recalibrated her creative paradigm by composing a greater share of the songs and bringing more electricity into the picture.

On Thunderbird Wilson continues both trends, adding greater hip-hop and pop components to the mix. Wilson has also begun to close the wide sonic spaces that were typical of her earlier material by allowing more aggressive instrumental layering. All of this is done with mixed effect. The opening "Go to Mexico is perhaps the most solid example of Wilson's experimentation with sampling and loops. The piece has a much greater synthetic sound than her previous work. Wisely, the song is engineered (via producer T-Bone Burnett) with Wilson's greatest asset, her voice, out front. The Wallflower's "Closer to You is closer to her earlier efforts, but still bears a highly layered sound not heard on her earlier work.

Where Wilson remains without peer is on her interpretation of blues and country music. The stunning centerpieces to this recording are Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Easy Rider, the old country saw "Red River Valley, and Willie Dixon's "I Want to Be Loved. All three songs feature the buzz-saw razor of Colin Linden's electric slide guitar. "Easy Rider begins plaintively with Wilson and Linden sparring before it erupts into a seething blues lava flow, propelled by Linden and Keith Ciancia's keyboards. In contrast, "Red River Valley finds Wilson and Linden alone, transforming western country into country slide guitar blues a la Ry Cooder. Combining both approaches results in "I Want to be Loved, Wilson's greatest realization as a blues singer.

Wilson fully succeeds in her digital-electric experiment with the originals "It Would Be So Easy and "Poet, pop songs better than the majority heard on programmed radio. It is a provocative look at Wilson's expanding talent. However, this electric turn is not Wilson's best work... as are "Easy Rider, "Red River Valley and "I Want to Be Loved.

Track Listing: Go to Mexico; Closer to You; Easy Rider; It Would Be So Easy; Red River Valley; Poet; I Want to be Loved; Lost; Strike a Match; Tarot.

Personnel: Cassandra Wilson: vocals, guitar; T-Bone Burnett, Keb

Title: Thunderbird | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Blue Note Records

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