Category Archives: vocalist

For Cassandra Wilson’s 60th Birthday, a Jazz Times Feature From 2012 and a Downbeat Feature from 2008

To mark the 60th birthday of the great singer Cassandra Wilson, I’m posting a pair of feature articles I’ve had the opportunity to write about her — first a long piece for Jazz Times in 2012, next a feature for Downbeat in 2008.

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Cassandra Wilson, ‘Jazz Times’ Article (2012):

On Memorial Day, as afternoon turned to evening and the barbecues wound down in the brownstone back yards next to Complete Music Studios in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights district, Cassandra Wilson convened her band for a five-hour rehearsal to prepare for a one-week run that would launch two days hence in Bergen, Norway, continue in Lviv, Ukraine, and conclude in Moscow. Ensconced in Room 4 of the sprawling converted warehouse, they worked methodically through the set list, postulating frameworks for such older Wilson standbys as “Fragile” and “Time After Time,” and newer repertoire like “Red Guitar” and “Another Country” (both from Wilson’s June release, Another Country [E1]), and a stark, intense arrangement of “The Man I Love” by harmonicist Gregoire Maret, Wilson’s current musical director, and a steady presence in her bands since 2003. They sat in a circle, Maret to Wilson’s left, and then, proceeding clockwise, guitarist Brandon Ross, drummer John Davis, bassist Ben Williams (filling the chair for Reginald Veal, who would join the troupe in Europe, as would percussion Lekan Babaola), and guitarist Marvin Sewell.

The final song was Wilson’s “A Little Warm Death,” which she debuted on New Moon Daughter, her 1995 chart-topper. Wilson was navigating the concluding vamp (“One little warm death/Come have one little warm death with me tonight”), denoting the time feel with gracefully calibrated arm swoops, when, suddenly, she interrupted the flow.

“It’s a lazy rhythm,” Wilson said casually, looking at Davis, a recent addition to the band. Her blondish dreads hung loose, and she wore a diaphanous earth-toned blouse, white capri slacks, gray espadrilles, and clef-shaped earrings. A red Telecaster guitar stood to the right of her chair; a closed Mac-Pro was on the floor to her left. “In Bahia, they’ve got a thing, too, where they’re way behind the beat. Most instrumentalists want you to push it. But most singers, like me, we want to lay back—we’re lazy.” She offhandedly referenced several rappers. “They got some serious swag way behind the beat.”

After a final runthrough of “A Little Warm Death,” Ross asked Wilson to try the Lennon-McCartney song, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” “I don’t really know it yet,” Wilson responded. “Can you sing it?” Ross complied; Wilson listened attentively, smiled encouragingly, beat the rhythm on her knees. “Nice,” she said after Ross’ quick Polaroid of his intentions. While Ross and Davis established the changes and key, she opened the Macbook, and, scrolling with her big toe, talked out the lyrics from the screen. In due time, she closed the computer, sat erect, planted her feet, and claimed possession with a completely realized interpretation, bobbing and weaving within the rhythm, her infinitely flexible contralto conveying nuance and unveiling implication.

“I think they were dropping acid then,” Wilson said dryly after this textbook display of what it means to practice like you play. She exhaled and shook her head. “I’m running out of power.” But she recouped for a stomping “Come Together,” skipping registers with the ease of a bird in flight, even soaring into the soprano range for a quick minute. Then the evening’s work was done.

[BREAK]

“I’ve witnessed that for many years, and it always amazes me,” Maret remarked the next morning on Wilson’s ability to instantly alchemize a song into her own argot. “She has no limits. She goes into the moment, and interacts with whatever the whole ensemble has created for her.”

For Wilson, first and foremost, to be daring is a matter of musicianship. “The gospel that I’m trying to get out is that, ok, it’s fine to have a beautiful voice, but it will be even finer if you are able to communicate with that instrument as a musician,” she said over the phone from her home in Jackson, Mississippi, a week before the rehearsal. “In jazz, I think that is the connection you have to make before you even step foot into that world.”

“Cassandra does things that most singers should do,” Ross confirmed. “She’s more out of the Miles Davis realm of dealing with a melody. In an understated way, she takes things in a direction that doesn’t necessarily give you a lot of extended information, but can change the path of what you’re doing, which makes it can sound wide-open.”

Still, Wilson acknowledges that a certain ineffable, intuitive mojo also shapes her interpretations. Speaking to me several years ago, she analogized it as akin to “trying on clothing, when you walk in the store and find something that really fits; I’ve found a path inside it, a way to sing it that’s true to my life story.”

In a separate conversation, Ross elaborated on that metaphor. “When I was Cassandra’s Music Director,” he said, referencing the years 1993 to 1996, “I always looked at rehearsals as like a fitting session. I get the thing set up, do a tuck here or pin it there, then she’d come in and say, ‘Yeah, let’s go that direction,’ then maybe take a break or be out on some business, and then come back in and hook it up. She doesn’t tell anyone exactly what to do. She lets people find the best things that can be played with her music. Maybe it takes a bit of time to get to that point. But once you get there, it’s magical.”

Time is not an infinitely available commodity on recording sessions, where Wilson, when functioning as her own producer, has occasionally found it problematic to achieve magical results on deadline with a hands-off creative process. “I am probably the worst when it comes to organization,” she told me a week before the rehearsal. “I procrastinate until the last minute to do things. I tend to give musicians too much freedom. I don’t like to tell someone how to play something. I have gotten to the point where I do express my feelings about how I want something translated, But in the past, I’ve been pretty laissez-faire. I just let the music unfold. Sometimes it comes out great, sometimes not so great.”

Perhaps for this reason, Wilson has decided on various occasions to rely on a producer’s vision to create the frame in which she operates. Craig Street oversaw the transitional mid-‘90s recordings Blue Light Til Dawn and New Moon Daughter on which, as Ross states, “she claimed all of her personal experience, and molded it into a statement of who she is as a human being and as an artist,” removing her voice from the plugged-in frames of funk and hip-hop and modern jazz that she had navigated over the previous decade, and placing it in a spare, elemental strings-and-percussion context drawn straight from Mississippi roots, specifically her apprentice years as a singer-guitarist around Jackson, where she was born and raised.

In 2000, after eighteen years in New York, Wilson, needing time off to “get my bearings” and also wanting to keep an eye on her aging mother, began the process of resettling in Jackson. In 2002, she made the 150-mile drive up Highway 61 to Clarksville, to record the nostalgic, self-produced Belly Of The Sun. For most of the aughts she also kept a residence in New Orleans, 185 miles due south; there, in 2008, she made the drumcentric covers date Loverly, a Grammy-winner, and, in 2010, put together the studio segments of Silver Pony, which documented the kinetic mojo her then-constant working band with Sewell, Veal, Babaola, pianist Jonathan Batiste, and drummer Herlin Riley, could generate in live performance.

She stayed in Jackson to make Thunderbird (2004), for which she recruited T-Bone Burnett to conjure a zeitgeist-appropriate version of the blues-and-roots trope that underpins her mature tonal personality. On four Wilson songs, keyboardist Keith Ciancia constructs complex and detailed sonic landscapes—entextured layers of samples, loops, programming, beats, various vocal effects—that serve as couture to her timbre and illuminate the metaphysical subtext of her autobiographical lyrics. They effectively counterpoint less dressed-up vernacular-oriented repertoire to which guitarists Marc Ribot (Burnett’s “Lost”), Keb Mo’ (Willie Dixon’s “I Want To Be Loved”) and Colin Linden (“Red River Valley”) respond with more explicit blues connotations.

Vibrations of place are equally palpable on Another Country [E1], conceived in New Orleans in February 2011 and recorded six months later in Florence, Italy. It’s a joint venture with producer-guitarist Fabrizio Sotti, a son of Padova whose c.v. includes hit tracks by, among others, Dead Presidents, Q-Tip, Tupac, Ghostface Killah, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, as well as several jazz albums with world-class improvisers that feature his luminous sound, impeccable chops, and lyric imagination. Performed by Sotti on acoustic guitar, Julien Labro on accordion, Nicola Sorato on acoustic bass, and Lekan Babalola and Mino Cinelu on percussion, the program, suffused with Mediterranean flavor, includes seven originals, six of them co-composed with Sotti, an extraordinary rendition of “O Sole Mio,” and two solo miniatures by Sotti.

They met in 2003, when Wilson, not thrilled with the fruits of several recording sessions for the follow-up to Belly of The Sun, was looking “to experiment, to find different textures to play with.” Their simpatico was instant. “We became friends quickly,” she recalls. “It was really easy to work with him.”

The end product, Glamoured, to which Wilson contributed five originals and idiosyncratic renditions of Sting’s “Fragile,” Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” and Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” was the singer’s most personal, self-revelatory album of the ‘00s. Seven years later, freed of caretaking responsibilities after her mother’s death the year before, and having fulfilled her obligations to Blue Note, her label since 1993, Wilson found herself again focusing on “constantly playing with and exploring ideas—I felt ready to start writing songs again.” Late in 2010, she and Sotti, with whom she had stayed in touch, began serious talks about a new record. A few months later, around Mardi Gras, they got to work in her French Quarter house.

“For a couple of months, we’d been tossing around ideas, frameworks, and chord progressions or songs, and Fabrizio already had ideas,” Wilson recalls. “I sat at the piano, he’d play and record the changes, and in the process we’d have conversations about how he felt when he wrote the music. From that, a couple of tunes on Another Country—for example, ‘When Will I See You Again’—were formed based on those emotions.

“There is a strong, sympathetic energy between us. Fabrizio is detail-oriented and meticulous. Everything is in place in his universe. His nails are always cut. His guitars are clean. He doesn’t like to touch a guitar whose strings are too old. That organizational side of his personality matches me well. Also, we’re both guitar lovers, and we communicate very well based on that. Through the way he plays his guitar, he’s able to tap into certain basic emotions, places in my memory that are powerful and evocative.”

Armed with a half-dozen or so melodies, Wilson let the information marinate. She gradually conceived lyrics over the next several months, but didn’t complete them until August, when she and Sotti reunited in Florence for a fortnight to make the recording. “Passion,” a tango, is her response to “the beautiful apartment we had in Piazza della Signoria—you’ve got the David there, the museums, the fountains in the street, the balconies, the foot traffic, people eating out.” Wilson relates that she came up with “Almost Twelve”—an idiomatic street samba that Sotti positions as “a modern version of what Gilberto and Ella Fitzgerald did with Abraca Jobim”—after “traveling back from the studio one night, not being able to find our way back to the hotel, and going around in circles in the maze of the old city of Florence for about an hour-and-a-half.”

Wilson adds that she found the melody and the lyric of the title track not long after the idyllic sojourn, while in Woodstock, where she keeps a residence. “I’m still trying to decipher the meaning,” she says. “It’s about experiencing life in different stages and in different times, and experiencing love, and seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, seeing their world—which is what I did when I went to Italy with Fabrizio. I experienced Italy in a totally different light. We tend to identify ourselves as the other whenever we go into a culture. But once you’re inside it, you begin to make a connection.”

Sotti remarks that the songs bear a tone parallel to those of Glamoured, which addressed subjects of love, loss, and betrayal. “It’s a similarly transitional time for her, and these are clearly quite personal, a lot of stories of things she’s actually going through,” Sotti said. “Cassandra’s voice is a unique instrument. She’s an originator, not only in the style she plays, but in the sound of her voice. There aren’t too many other comparable voices out there—prior or after. We respect each other, and trust each other deeply. Either of us could say that something was ready, and we’d follow the other’s lead. It was a total collaboration between two musicians who totally speak the same language. We talked about chord changes, forms, even beyond just the poetry of the words and everything else. There no boundaries, no stigmas of any kind. We just said, ‘Let’s try to write the music we feel now, and do it the best way we can.’”

It was Sotti’s idea to use the accordion, which seals the Mediterranean ambiance. “I associate the instrument with the emotion that the Italians call malinconia,” Wilson said, savoring each syllable. “It’s in the lyric of ‘O Sole Mio.’ Malinconia is melancholy. Saudade is another great word—it’s the same emotion. The Irish love melancholy, too.

“I think I’m a melancholy specialist. It’s a sweet—or bittersweet—emotion. There’s always this condition of the human heart to long for something that it imagines it would need. It’s not a bad feeling. For me, it’s a rich feeling. I think it’s a beautiful part of being human, to have longing, to always search for something, to always seek to make the heart whole.”

[BREAK]

On tour with her band in Italy before her fortnight in Florence, Wilson performed a concert “at some Etruscan ruins or an archaeological dig.” She researched the subject, and found “interesting connections between the Etruscan culture and the Yoruba people—the way they created their courtyards, the architecture, the spiritual stuff.”

She references this connection on the coda of Another Country, a lilting track titled “Olomuroro,” a Yoruba word that directly translates into “one with droopy breasts,” but also denotes a mythological monster who stole a boy’s meal while the boy grew thinner.

“We’re drawing upon the former story,” Wilson said when she stopped laughing. “The song is about the women in the village who come around to care for the children when their parents are not there, because they need feeding, they need milk. The breasts are drooping because they are the breasts of the wet nurse. The Yoruba people don’t have any issues singing about the beauty of big, drooping breasts.”

Herself the mother of a son who is past his majority, Wilson—who draws deep sustenance from Mississippi roots—attends closely to matters of heritage. “The first five years of your life, your personality is formed,” she remarks. “The place where that happens is significant, and it holds a lot of powerful emotional material that you can draw upon.”

It is not surprising that, in the second half of her sixth decade, Wilson would conclude an album of love songs with one that directly signifies a matriarchal world view from an ancestral perspective. Her mother, Mary Fowlkes, was a Ph.D and professor of Spanish at Jackson State; her grandmother, to whom she was particularly close in her own early childhood, was a conjure woman figure.

“Her habits were mysterious and unusual,” Wilson recalls. “She would wear an apron, which had two pockets in which she carried seeds, and had a wonderful smell. I have some of those seeds still. She was a woman who had moved from what would be called rural Mississippi to the city, and she kept a gun. Even in her seventies, she loved to go off into the woods and gather. She was an herbalist. She could make medicines. She used to take a cup and raise it above her head and circle her head three times. Lekan Babaola told me, after I described it to him, that it’s a Yoruba gesture. Three times over the head before leaving something, casting it away.”

Although Wilson hasn’t cast away her Harlem apartment or her New York connections, she states that she is now “out of New Orleans” and spending most of her time in Jackson. “Making this the base has completely turned my thought processes around,” she said. “Instead of thinking about what I need to do in New York to further my career, or to get the message out, or to create the music, I’m doing that here. The way that I look at my career now is based on my community, and the work that I do in this community. I look at this stage of my life as being mine to make, and my decisions are based on what I think my path is.”

Part of that path will include hewing to Abbey Lincoln’s suggestion that “it’s important for singers to write songs about what’s happening in their lives, not to focus on the songs and the stories of other people’s lives. Abbey explained to me that it’s great to sing a standard—and of course, it is, if it’s your own story—but it’s so much more important for you to add to that your story, and to constantly stay in touch with that story, that narrative.”

Towards that end, Wilson states, “I’m going to work on developing a core of musicians to play with, and making sure that core is strong enough to interpret the music on its own. Then, once you get to the live part, you begin to create the other life of the song. The song doesn’t just stay where it is. It has to go through all these permutations and changes. That’s exciting, too, because you can stumble across something else entirely new that then, again, will lead you to the next project. It can be scary. But it’s a good scary.

“I love the mistake, and I love that feeling of stepping out and doing something that will cause a mistake. In order to get to that point, you have to get out of your comfort zone. You can’t continue to make music that engages the audience on the level that you want them to be engaged if you remain in your comfort zone. I change my policy every day. Who knows what’s going to happen next time?”

———–

Cassandra Wilson, Downbeat Critics Poll Article (2008):

“I felt I’d come to an emotional wall,” Cassandra Wilson said over the phone from Jackson, Mississippi, describing her state of mind after completing Thunderbird [Blue Note] her rootsy, quasi-poppish 2006 release, and also explaining in part why her latest, Loverly [Blue Note], comprises ten songbook standards, a Robert Johnson blues, and a Yoruba praise song.

“I couldn’t find my footing,” the 52-year-old singer elaborated. “I’ve decided to backtrack, simplify, learn the blues, REALLY learn the blues. Which is not that simple.” Asked whether her reference point is the hometown version of the blues-as-such or the blues as a world view, she opted for the former. “It’s something more particular to Jackson,” said Wilson, who has spent much time there in recent years tending to her aged mother. “There is a sound here. It’s halfway between the Delta and New Orleans, so it swings.”

“A certain amount of narcissism goes with being a vocalist—a jazz vocalist, or whatever you want to call what I do,” Wilson continued. “Songwriting as well. You have to let go of something in order to take care of people.”

Still, by deciding to wear the producer’s hat on Loverly, after collaborations with Americana guru T-Bone Burnett on Thunderbird and Top-40 (Mariah Carey) craftsman Fabrizio Sotti on Glamoured from 2003, Wilson returned to the methodology that generated both Travelin’ Miles and In The Belly of the Sun, her highly personal cusp of the 21st century releases. As on those occasions, the process was collaborative.

“I don’t really think about categorizing what I do, but going into this project, of course we knew that we were going to revisit standards,” Wilson said. “The treatment came about from a confluence of events.” While mulling a list of “maybe 30-40 songs” generated by Blue Note head Bruce Lundvall, Wilson took input on repertoire selection from bassist Lonnie Plaxico, her one-time musical director, and from Nigerian drummer Lekan Babaola, whose rolling grooves, articulated in synch with trapsman Herlin Riley, frame a complex rhythmic flow that Wilson traverses with surefooted grace. For the first time since Rendezvous, a label-arranged 1997 encounter with Jacky Terrason, she deploys the tonal personality of a pianist—in this case, native Houstonian Jason Moran—to signify on her narratives.

“Lekan stepped up and reminded me about the importance of the drums,” she said. “That’s a no-brainer for me. I’m deeply tied into rhythm, so it made perfect sense to approach these standards with a focus on the rhythmic bed that the music is lying on.”

Several years ago, Moran cut his teeth with Wilson for a brief, unrecorded stint. “I met him through Steve Coleman,” Wilson said. “The way he plays feels great to me. You don’t always find pianists who are strong soloists on their own yet are able to accompany a singer. I’ve worked with pianists where it’s difficult to find a space, but Jason seems to understand my phrasing really well, maybe because his wife is a singer.”

Only the Robert Johnson-composed, Elmore James-associated blues “Dust My Broom” was in Wilson’s repertoire during the months leading up to the August recording date, which made inhabiting the songs, many of them canonical, a tricky proposition. Indeed, for the most part, Wilson has eschewed such fare since Blue Skies, the swinging 1988 recital that placed her in the conversation with such empyrean divas as Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughan, and Nancy Wilson.

“Certain songs have been done over and over, and some have definitive versions,” she said. “Unless you completely tear it apart, there’s not much you can do. But certain songs. I don’t care if there’s a definitive version or it’s been done to death. I’ve found a path inside it, a way to sing it that’s true to my life story. Sometimes you know instantly when it feels right. It’s like trying on clothing, when you walk in the store and find something that really fits. I dance in a certain way with it. Musicians in my band have told me I move a certain way when I feel really at ease inside of a song.”

Both as producer and bandleader, Wilson, by her description, embraces a Venus-lets-Mars-think-it’s-in-charge approach. “I’m probably the least proactive leader,” she said. “ I tend to walk away from the musicians. Maybe it has something to do with the way women feel around men—I don’t know why I feel that, but I do. Some sort of male bonding thing happens in jazz when cats come together to work on a project. So I tend to come in and out, disappear, come back, see what’s happening, and just let them flow. I don’t try to direct them. I let the stream find its own way, instead of trying to create its path.”

One such moment occurred on “Til There Was You,” the Meredith Wilson love song made famous by both the Beatles and Frank Sinatra, on which Wilson proceeds through an allusive web of rhythm-timbre comprised of Herlin Riley’s New Orleans streetbeats and Babalola’s hand drum and cowbell, stabbing blues phrases from guitarist Marvin Sewell, and apropos chording from Moran.

“Lonnie asked if I knew it—it was not on the list,” she said. “I started singing, and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’ Then I left the room, and Herlin and Lekan and Lonnie came up with that feel.”

A visit from Babalola to Wilson’s Jackson studio a few months before the recording generated the Afrocentric treatment of “Dust My Broom.” “Lekan said, ‘I want to show you something,’ and asked me to play some blues on the guitar,” Wilson related. “I started playing the regular 12-bar blues, he played rhythms under it, and said, ‘This is sakhara. This is one of the genres of blues music that we have in Nigeria. If had had the drum in Mississippi at that time, and if Robert Johnson were playing with the drummer, I think that he would have been playing this rhythm.’”

African rhythms saturate “Arere,” a Yoruba praise song to Ogun, the warrior god. The word also refers to a tree that emits a powerful, uncontrollable, odor so offensive that a Yoruba proverb cited in the book Rethinking Sexualities in Africa—type “arere” and “Yoruba” into Google Search, and it comes right up—states “any home where a woman is vocal, loud, influential through self-expression, will have the arere tree growing in the courtyard.”

The piece emerged in January 2007, when Wilson and Steve Coleman, her musical mentor and domestic partner during the middle ‘80s, presented a concert at the Stone in Lower Manhattan. The mandate was to create music for the 16 principal Odu, or stations of the human condition, represented in the Ifa system of divination.

“Lekan was going to Nigeria at the time, and I asked if he could get me the song for each major odu,” Wilson recalled. “I didn’t get them on time, so Steve winged it. He took it into Egyptology, made correlations between the numbers, the colors, the directions, the astrological things, went deep into it, and devised a system for the music to be created.

“At the time I met Steve, I wanted to get out of a certain comfort zone, and he encouraged me to do that. He told me that if I could hold my own within his system—cycles of rhythm, hearing cues in the rhythm instead of chords, the layering of rhythms—I would have something else to bring to the standards. He was right about that. I had to develop a certain swagger with his music, to pump myself up, find some confidence, find a way to sing over it that would make sense. I guess that was the very beginning of a distinctive sound that I knew was something that I had that no one else had. When you learn to improvise over odd time signatures, 4/4 becomes very relaxing. You develop a certain elasticity in your phrasing. You can do something outside of the box on the standards, play with it, let it stretch, because you’re always certain about your time.”

Wilson had to call upon that swagger during a March tour of Europe with David Murray, a fellow 1955 baby, who called her to sing two Ishmael Reed lyrics on his own 2007 release, Sacred Ground [JustinTime].

“I thought I’d just get up and do the songs from the record, but David sprang three or four new tunes on me, and I had to learn them quickly,” she said. “The music is very thick, not terribly porous, and there’s always a struggle, a tension inside it. The changes move in strange ways, as do the melodies, and you have [to] weave these complex melodies around this complex environment. I had to rise.”

Wilson expresses even more enthusiasm about her own band, which over the summer will consist of Sewell, Riley, Babalola, bassist Reginald Veal, and the young New Orleans pianist Jonathan Batiste.

“I’m in a working mood,” she said. “I get so excited to go on stage, because it’s a great group of very strong musicians. Everybody has something to bring to the table, when needed, on the stage. Maybe I’m at a point in my life where I feel like I’m hitting my stride.”

 

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Filed under Cassandra Wilson, DownBeat, Jazz Times, vocalist

For Bill Henderson’s 88th Birthday, an Uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test from Ten Years Ago

About ten years ago, the inimitable vocalist Bill Henderson sat with me for a Blindfold Test in the offices of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Today’s his 88th birthday; here are the proceedings.

* * *

Bill Henderson Blindfold Test:

1.  Billy Eckstine, “Travelin’ All Alone” (from BASIE/ECKSTINE INCORPORATED, Roulette, 1959/1994) (Eckstine, vocals; Count Basie Orchestra)

Sounds like Count Basement.  Look out!  Billy Eck-stein! [Travelin’] Yeah. [Travelin’] Yeah. [So you think this is Count Basie and Billy Eckstine.] Well, it sounds like his orchestra.  It could be Billy’s orchestra. He had pretty much the same guys. A lot of the same guys went through all of those orchestras. Like, Ellington had a lot of different guys, and somebody asked him, “How did you get all those guys?” He said, “I simply pay them money.” But that is Billy Eckstine.  There’s no question about that.  He was a monumental kind of guy. Also, he was a complete balladeer—and handsome.  Women loved this guy.  He was like a magnet.  He used to say, “Ladies, line up over there.”  And they would line up over there! [LAUGHS] From the Regal stage in Chicago.  It was amazing.  In those times, that’s when big orchestras came through Chicago all the time.  He wasn’t somebody I emulated, but I understood what was happening.

I never really tried to sing like singers. I really sang like my father, who was never in show business.  Emphasizing the words, rounding them off and all that kind of stuff, was my way of seeking attention, because I was the third child in the family. See?  And the only way I could really be understood was to say something that they would have to listen to.  And my father was great.  He was really something.  I loved to sing with him in church.  And we were not Baptists. We were Presbyterians in a Baptist neighborhood.  Calumet Avenue.  Southwest.  Near South Park, which is now Martin Luther King Drive.

His performances were… You could sit down and write all that stuff down, because he was perfect in those days. He was the perfect balladeer. I have no idea when he made that, because he was much older than I was.  I remember him coming to the Regal Theater, and the audiences were loaded with women.  You could tell when it was going to be a success, because they were there, man. That’s 5 stars.  Just for being him, that’s 5. “I’m in the mood…” Then Arthur Prysock came along, too. There were a lot of different guys who came into I guess you’d call it that genre. The arranger could be somebody like Ernie Wilkins.  It could have been at that time… I’m trying to think of some names.  That’s where it gets to be difficult. [You sang with Basie.] See, Billy Eckstine gave birth to Johnny Hartman.  He was another guy that the women really loved.  This is the only guy that stood in front of the microphone with his hands in his pocket, and just sang. When you just let that come all out, the audience feels all of that.  And you’re not making a move… It’s not like… Joe used to sing like this. [HANDS OVER CHEST] I think Lena Horne called him “My Mummy,” because he looked like this.  But he could sing, too, Joe Williams.  But Johnny Hartman was introduced by Larry “Good Deal” Steel. “When it’s showtime in the Beige Room.”  That’s what he used to sing. He introduced this young kid, and he didn’t elaborate too much about what he sounded like. He just wanted the audience to hear that. And when he started to sing, he could hear women and even some guys go, “Whoa!!!”  There were quite a few singers at that time.  A lot of guys didn’t get the shot that they should have gotten.  I think Johnny Hartman got a bigger shot after he was dead.  Because Clint Eastwood had his sound in one of his movies, Madison County or something like that.  A lot of people asked me, “where can I see him perform?” and I said, “He’s not alive.” They didn’t know.  But he was a helluva singer, too.

Billy Eckstine was very nice to me.  As a matter of fact, he introduced me to Billy Strayhorn.  We went over to his house.  Billy loved to cook. I think he cooked something with beans and beer. It was good.  I didn’t realize how little Billy Strayhorn was.  He was a little guy.  Not like Johnny Puglio, but like Mickey Rooney. But he could write love songs.  As a matter of fact, I think Lena Horne said he was her soulmate.  Because he knew how to write love songs, and he loved things about flowers, azaleas, gardenias, and colors, too. One thing I want to get of his is called “Multi-colored Blue.” Nobody seems to know where that can be found.

2. Mark Murphy, “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” (from MEMORIES OF YOU, High Note, 2003) (Murphy, vocals; Norman Simmons, piano; Darryl Hall, bass; Grady Tate, drums)

Oh, it’s Mark Murphy. Yeah! We did a show with Mark and several other singers, singing Johnny Mandel at the Bakery in California.  That’s really the first time he heard me sing.  Because sometimes people really don’t pay any attention to you; they’ve got their own thing to contend with.  He used to rave with people. People would come back to me and tell me, “He’s talking about you.” So I said, “Wow.”  But he could do this, too, Kerouac and all that stuff. [OUT OF VERSE AND INTO LYRIC: “Never treats me sweet and gentle…”] I had it bad!!  The ability to sing a verse from the audience’s standpoint, not knowing where this verse is supposed to go, and then when you hear the chorus and you realize some guys can make up verses, leading up into a song.  George Burns and John Bubbles, they used to be on stage and they used to make verses up to any song, and the audience would not know what the song was going to be until they sang the chorus.  But they were good at this.  He’s good at that, too.  I never heard that verse before. So that may be his. But you see, it fit.  It could be a verse that sang, but I don’t know it.  And it’s Ellington.  So I don’t know if that was written already.  Because there are a lot of things that were written that were never played or never sang anywhere, maybe at some kind of performance on stage. Now, Mark Murphy had a way of ending things, too. The pianist could be somebody like Ellis Larkins or… God.  It’s like The Millionaire. Do you have A, B and C? Norman Simmons?  Wow!  Norman was lately with Joe Williams.  Carmen, too.  But that part, I never heard him play like that before.  So that was a whole different thing.  He was going with Mark Murphy.  Wow!  That was very good. A Joe Williams tribute record?  Get out of here! I give that 5 stars, too.

[PLAY “In The Evening”] God, this is brilliant, man. Soulful, too. There’s another guy that people are not really hip to.  But see, this is accompanying, which is a lost art. A lot of singers are feeling the heat, too, because of that. [Not a teamwork era.] Yeah.  But also can take care of himself.  A lot of piano players only take care of themselves, and you would have to find a place to get in.  There’s some thought on Mark’s part, though, for this. Because he knew… He’s really singing the blues. He thought about it, and who he’s giving this tribute to.  Did he pick Norman?  See, about accompanying, that means that you can go in different directions.  You can become this kind of piano player, you can become the classical thing… See, Oscar Peterson had that talent, to go the whole spectrum of playing for anybody.  That’s why he played for everybody with Pablo Records.  When he played for me, I was spellbound. God!  Then on top of that, when you’re new, you would make suggestions that you hoped somebody would hear, and he listened to everything.  So after a while, you tell somebody about this: “You told Oscar what to play?!” “I was dumb.  I didn’t know.”  But he took it and played it.  So it really made me feel good, and I’m getting royalties from it.  Because I found out that a vocal arrangement is just like anything on paper. So there’s a lady in California who is giving me money.  On the Oscar Peterson thing, my name is on it.

At that time, Billy Eckstine was a visionary as far as vocals are concerned. Because he used to make up verses, too, to a lot of his songs; a lot of the old standard songs. They were guys that knew how to interpret a song, regardless of where the song came from or who wrote it.  If they picked it, they would know something about this song that they could display their talents with. That’s what I try to do with whatever song that I sing.  I try to do that, too.  Not because I heard them do it.  But maybe because I DID hear them do it in the old days.  But I heard my father a lot.  Because his favorite song was “There’s Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie, But I Don’t Care.”  I can’t find that music anywhere.  I don’t know if it was Bing Crosby or Chris Columbo or whoever it was that sang that.  But my father sang it to my father. [And here you are.] Yes, I am here.  And there was four of us altogether.  So he sang it a lot.

3. Cassandra Wilson, “Throw It Away” (from GLAMOURED, Blue Note, 2004) (Wilson, vocals; Reginald Veal, bass; Abbey Lincoln, composer)

Is the bass player Percy Heath?  No?  It could be Ray Drummond. But it’s somebody, the bass is part of their body.  See that tone?  That’s the kind of tone that Ray Brown had.  But that’s not Ray Brown.  Is it Abbey Lincoln? She has an inflection like Abbey, though. It’s not Cassandra.  Ah.  Well, there are different things she does to let me know. When she dropped a little of Abbey Lincoln and something else came in, I thought it was her. Her pauses.  How she caresses words. And she is another visionary.  See, most times you can’t find a bass player that would accompany.  I did that with John Heard at my daughter’s wedding, and I sang “Sleepin’ Bee,” and he played the string parts. I was on the floor, man. Whoo! This is not John Clayton. It’s in that thing somewhere. [Not West Coast.] New York? [Southern. Sometimes in New York, but he’s southern.] Ah!! I see a face, but I can’t call a name.  It starts with an H. [No.] That’s what I said. It doesn’t start with an H. I love what he’s doing.  Which is a difficult thing to do, to accompany somebody.  Hear he’s playing the right notes for her to hang with?  That’s very important.  Now, this is strolling. DANG-DONG, you know. Now he’s got to play something for her. Right in there somewhere.  That would be my bass player for an all star band.  He’s orchestral.  See?  He could fit in an orchestra or a small group. 5 stars. That was a tour de force.  [AFTER] Never heard of Reginald Veal.

4.  Al Jarreau, “Groovin’ High” (from ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE, Verve, 2004) (Jarreau, vocals; Larry Williams, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Peter Erskine, drums)

Bobby McFerrin. [It’s not.] That’s what I said. It’s not Bobby. I was close, but it’s not Bobby. It’s a guy much younger than Bobby. [No, I don’t think so.] Oh, then it’s Al Jarreau. He’s another monster. He’s got that facility to do that stuff, man. When was it made?  Sounds like probably in the ‘80s somewhere. It’s brand new? [2004.] That’s what I said. It’s 2004. Have he and Bobby McFerrin ever sang together? It would be interesting to write something for those two guys.  Because they are orchestral. Bobby is even moreso; he’s got strings and flutes and all kinds of things going on in his head.  English! What’s the word when you are really good with words?  There’s a phrase.  It’s not linguista… He has a way with words. This is beyond scat singing. He and Bobby McFerrin are beyond scat singing.  Scat singing was raw.  These guys are more like an orchestra in some aspects, encompassing the strings, the horns, sometimes the drum and the bass.  They’re considering all of that.  So these guys I consider to be masters as far as that kind of vocalese thing is concerned.  I’m not like that at all.  I just want to sing! 5 stars. People are going to think I’m being paid for that. [I know you’re not.] Thank you.  That’s not on tape.

5.  James Brown, “It’s Magic” (from SOUL ON TOP, Verve, 1969/2004) (James Brown, vocals; Oliver Nelson, arranger; Louis Bellson Orchestra)

It’s not Jimmy Scott, is it? It’s not Jimmy Scott.  I was just testing you.  That’s all. It’s not Ruth Brown either.  I’m getting close, though, I think. It’s like a poker game.  I’m trying to read your face. That’s what made me think it was Ruth Brown, that thing she does. I’m stumped. I have no idea.  I liked it, and I thought it was a tremendous arrangement. But I don’t have a clue who the arranger is. I’m failing, ladies and gentlemen.  I have no idea. I could see the singer in a nightclub.  The audiences probably  loved her like crazy. I thought it was Ruth Brown there for a minute, because there’s something about what she did that reminded me of Ruth Brown.[The last name is correct.] Brown is the last name? Wow. [AFTER] That was James Brown?? Holy toledo, that sounded like a rough lady. Wow!! Now, that has to be an old cut of his, right? It different for him.  That’s another thing. I would never have thought it was James Brown, because the chart is altogether different, and obviously he’s going in another direction.  But then it sounded… Oh, God. It sounds like I don’t know what the heck I’m talking about. I’m in limbo for stars. It sounded like several different people, and I wasn’t sure whether that person wanted to become one or the other. See?  I would consider for THAT alone to be maybe 3½ stars.  Though it was well done for whatever that was.  Boy, this Blindfold Test gets to be political, too, doesn’t it. I mean, if I make the wrong thing, there’ll people coming in the door talking about, “You made the wrong move, Bill Henderson. Out of here!” This means that some guys can go in different directions. It’s terrible when you’re deciding what somebody sounds like. I enjoyed it, but I thought it was very remindful of several female singers, and at first I thought it was Little Jimmy Scott.

6.  J.D. Walter, “On a Clear Day” (from CLEAR DAY, Double Time, 2001) (Walter, vocals; Dave Liebman, soprano saxophone; Jim Ridl, piano; Steve Varner, bass; Ari Hoenig, drums)

They’re influenced by the Orient. Is that a soprano?  He got something else out of it. Kurt Earling.  Earling Kurt. It’s not him either. This sounds like a guy who plays an instrument and sings. Oh, that’s not him playing. This is the same saxophonist that played the opening? They’re sensual sounds.  Crying. I thought for a minute it was going to go into Leon Thomas. You know, sometimes you get a feeling that it could be Johnny Mathis trying to go in a different direction. That’s very difficult, though, man. You’ve got to have some people that know where they’re going with that. Mmm. I have not a clue. They must have worked together a lot to be able to make that harmony and things that they got, to work that close together and doing something.  Because there was like two instruments playing there.  That’s why I thought at first it was a saxophonist who sang.  And there’s a pianist in there somewhere. 4 stars for being unusual.

7.  Jimmy Rushing, “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It” (from FIVE FEET OF SOUL, Roulette, 1963/2003, Jimmy Rushing, vocal; arranger, Al Cohn)

[LAUGHS] Man, my bucket’s got a hole in it.  Sounds like Mister Five by Five a little bit. This is the kind of stuff you never heard him do.  Because he always had to do something that was very familiar. This is probably what he did in person at some club or something.  He’s some I listened to, heard in passing.  But I was more interested in what Joe Williams was doing in Chicago, because he could sing anything. That’s why a lot of composers and songwriters wanted him to sing their songs, because he would give it the right inflection. He could sing just about anything—Pagliacci, all of that stuff.  Because he had that kind of voice. But guys like Jimmy Rushing, they only sang a certain kind of way.  This is different.  This is swinging much more.  And the orchestras are different. It’s not Basie, but they are emulating something like that. Al Cohn and Ernie Wilkins both did a lot of stuff for me. Billy Byers.  I took all of those charts with me to Basie’s band, and every night, after I finished singing, Basie would say, “You don’t sing anything by Joe Williams?”  I said, “No.  That’s why I brought all these charts with me.”  Because he took me everywhere, and we sang on a lot of television shows, just he and I.  But he always would say, “You don’t sing anything by Joe Williams?” I think I would have been dead in the water. [I think that was a smart strategy.] I think it was.  I think he liked me because of that. [People pay attention when you do your own thing and not someone else’s thing.] Yeah.  Because that was the reason why Lockjaw put me with the band.  He said, “you’re going to like this guy.” When I sang, I had all of those charts, and there was no real rehearsal with that band. I remember the first big date we had was in England, and Basie was calling my name, and I was in the dressing room. I was supposed to be at the microphone. Because when I got to the microphone, the band was halfway through my number. That’s when I looked at Basie’s face, and it was the first time I saw him get angry.  But see, nobody tells you anything.  So that was lesson number one. That’s what you call hard knocks. The second lesson was that Lockjaw gave me something to drink, and I was standing in the wings, getting ready to go on, and I was drinking this, and as I drank I was going… [TALKS DRUNK] And the band was watching me. Then Basie was saying, “And now, ladies and gentlemen,” and they were calling my name, and I was just standing in the wings, going, “Who-ho-ho.” I said to myself after that moment, “I don’t think drinking is mine.” That’s when I quit.  I never started, but that’s when I knew it was wrong. Could not handle it.

But that’s 9 stars.  Because I’ve never heard him sing like that.  And that was something complete, lyrics and everything. Five feet of soul! Those are the kind of songs he sang, you don’t even have to worry about what they are.  You just sing them. But this was a special arrangement, I think.  Probably something he wrote. [Clarence Williams wrote it.] Yeah, Clarence. That sounds like him.  He wrote a lot of stuff Joe sang, too.

8.  Carmen Lundy, “It Might As Well Be Spring” (from SOMETHING TO BELIEVE IN, Justin Time, 2003) (Lundy, vocal; Anthony Wonsey, piano; Curtis Lundy, bass; Victor Lewis, drums)

The wife of James Taylor, I thought it was. [At first you thought it was Carly Simon.] Yes.  But it’s not. I see a face, but I can’t see a name. I think I know who this is, but I’m not sure what the name is. It’s jazz.  There’s no question about it.  It’s an approach to jazz singing, more feminine than masculine. She’s in that same genre that Cassandra is in, as far as getting well-known things and putting her own inflections on it. The trio is involved with her, because they’re putting stuff together like that. I don’t know if she sings and plays.  It looks like somebody independently is playing.  There are three people I know who sound like somebody is accompanying them—Shirley Horn, Diana Krall, and Dina DeRose. They play like somebody is accompanying them.  When they sing, it’s altogether different. It’s like this guy is following her everywhere, and it’s her playing it. But this is a trio, and they seem to be working very closely with her.  Maybe it’s her chart.  Maybe she scored it.  Or maybe the piano player scored it for her.  But it’s somebody like that.  I don’t know who it is. It’s not Ella Fitzgerald.  It’s not Lena Horne.  It might be this singer, at-the-end-she-may-say-her-name.  No.  “It might as well be…”  Karrin Allyson or somebody like that. Tierney Sutton? I have not a clue. I enjoyed it, though. It was a tour de force all the way through.  Placing the lyric and the melody and all of that stuff together with what the trio was playing, it was like they were opposing each other musically a little bit, and fitting in like a puzzle. That is difficult to do from night to night, because sometimes guys want to go somewhere else when they play, and you want to go where the chart is going, and you’re in trouble when they go somewhere else. So I don’t know who it is. 4 stars.  Carmen Lundy?  Wow.  It was different.  It’s hard to do a standard like that and change it altogether, and still be remindful of how it really is supposed to go.

10.  Kurt Elling, “Detour Ahead”(from FLIRTING WITH TWILIGHT, Blue Note, 2001) (Elling, vocals)

This is Kurt.  This is another guy who knows what he wants to do.  He’s based in Chicago, and he seems to have all these good people to work with, because he comes up with something different all the time. And he’s singing! See, all of that phrasing and everything, the arrangement that’s going with him. He maybe wrote this stuff. [I think his piano player did the chart.] Well, his piano player’s a clone. Here, too, the chart is not namby-pamby.  This chart is meant to be played this way, so he can sing the way he sings. See, all the retards and things like that.  If they know when you’re going to do that.  He changes the melody. Does he play an instrument?  Maybe glockenspiel or something. That’s a joke.  I only joke when I’m in trouble! Sometimes when you’re on stage, you get in trouble, and you say: Oh, boy!  Do you know how many different showers they have with one knob?  And mostly in motels. When you turn a knob, it gets too hot.  When you turn it off completely and start it again, it’s cold water coming down. In my house, I have two knobs where you can regulate the water. Every hotel I’ve ever been in, except when I was in Europe, they have a lot of different things going on.  They have a bidet.

See, that drum hit, DONG, is part of the arrangement.  The drummer is aware of all that.  That’s 5 stars for the adventure.  A lot of adventure than that. A lot of going places musically. It’s probably an interesting set when he sings in clubs.  And he looks like Buffalo Bill.

11. Nat Cole, “These Foolish Things”(from LOVE SONGS, Capitol, 19__)

Nathaniel. Yeah. The guy who told him to sing, I don’t know if he could be still alive or not, because he was just playing piano at the time. He said, “You ought to sing!” Here’s a guy who could play and sing, and he was a helluva pianist. You know, Oscar Peterson sang like him.  If you heard Oscar sing, he sounds just like him. Also, Ray Charles sang like him in the beginning. And his television show was not sponsored.  It was what they call sustaining.  Whoever was at the station loved him so much, they put him on anyway.  But a lot of people in the South… Because he was singing love songs.  I guess guys in the South get too warm with a black guy singing love songs. Duke Ellington had a train when he went to the South.  They all stayed on the train, unless there was somebody who would invite them into their home.  Those were the days. This is 11 stars.  Because this guy was the epitome of what kind of singer…at that particular time.  Tremendous. And could talk to an audience and everything.  The orchestra sounds like Basie a little bit. I’ve sung this song, but I have not sung it recently.  There are a lot of things I would love to sing. Sometimes it’s just difficult getting a chart to be done with it.  You have to be concerned with financial things.

I hope I passed.  Sometimes, man, when you have a personal opinion, and you know that if you give that opinion, it’s going to be around the world, and it’s very shocking when it comes back to you.

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Filed under Bill Henderson, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, vocalist