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.
“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.”
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.”