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Cassandra Wilson: Traveling Miles

C. Michael Bailey By

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Critic's Note. AAJ 's Jim Santella reviewed Traveling Miles in the April issue of the magazine.

And Miles to Go. Cassandra Wilson has an original vocal and performance style in the same way the late Betty Carter did. They both are aggressively experimental in their phrasing with absolutely no qualms about pushing the envelope to the edge. They are both capable of seemingly approaching a devastating loss of control in their performance that is all of the time held firmly in place by their perfect concept swing. Wilson, indeed, is the most original jazz singer since Betty Carter.

Traveling Miles is ostensibly Wilson's tribute to Miles Davis. Davis' songbook is chock full of songs that a craftsman like Wilson could use to make a perfectly safe and superb tribute disc (much like Shirley Horn's I Remember Miles (Verve 314 557 199-2, 1998), one that takes no risks. But that is not what Wilson does. She takes about every chance she can, from penning her own lyrics to several Davis standards, including her own original material, to covering Miles' cover of Cyndi Lauper's "Time after Time" in that half-lidded, laconic voice Wilson came into on her last two solo recordings. It is in her willingness to take chances, to push the music as far as it will go, that Cassandra Wilson captures the essence, and thereby honors the memory of Miles Davis.

Through The Looking Glass. A perfect example that demonstrates the depth and breadth of Wilson's talent and vision is the disc's opener and closer, "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" from Bitches Brew. Wilson spins lyrics heavily laced with delta blues myths and motifs and spreads them over the hypnotic anti-blues funk of Davis' early steps into fusion. It is a juxtaposition that is simple in its genius and genre smashing in its intention.

Fruit Salad. The entire disc is built on Wilson's intricate yet durable arrangments and instrument combinations. Like Berlioz in an opium dream, Wilson masterfully brings together the most original instrument combinations. Electric and acoustic guitars and effects are employed in unexpected and surprising ways. Slide guitars provide on one hand a faux amature folk sound (note "Right Here, Right Now") and a psychedelic blues experience on the other ("Resurrection Blues").

Individual contributions often rule. Vincent Henry's harmonica is downright tasty on the Wilson original, "When the Sun goes Down". Vib-meister Stefon Harris provides perfect counterpoint to pianist Eric Lewis, while Regina Carter's violin first flits around and then enters the groove of "Seven Steps to Heaven". Kevin Breit's electric mandolin provides a ticklish texture to "Someday My Prince Will Come".

This turns out to be perhaps the most enjoyable and unique Miles tribute. I can find damn little wrong with it. But a note of warning—I rarely find fault with Miles Davis or Cassandra Wilson.

Title: Traveling Miles | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: Blue Note

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