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For Singer-Songwriter Gregory Porter’s 46th Birthday, A Jazziz Feature From 2013

Today’s the 46th birthday of the inspirational singer-songwriter Gregory Porter, who will drop his new album, a Nat Cole tribute, in a couple of weeks. For the occasion, here’s a feature article that I had the honor to write about this master for Jazziz in 2013.

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Water pouring down the sidewalks/Cleaning windows clear to see/Washing gumdrop down side gutters/Rusting chains and cleansing me/Growing gardens, drowning ants/Changing rhythms, bruising plants/Graying vistas soulfully/And it’s saving me. —“Water,” Gregory Porter

It rained torrents in Brooklyn on June’s first Friday, so much rain that at 3 p.m. water was flowing through crevices in the cornice atop the stoop of Gregory Porter’s Bedford Stuyvesant brownstone into the cramped vestibule. It was also, Porter said, seeping from the back into his ground-floor kitchen. No respite was in sight until well past Porter’s scheduled 7 o’clock flight to Pittsburgh, so it promised to be a long day. Still, the singer, sheathed in the black balaclava and Kangol cap that is his sartorial trademark, seemed stress-free as he escorted me upstairs, where it was dry.

In truth, the weather seemed an apropos backdrop for a discussion framed around Porter’s September Blue Note release, Liquid Spirit, which follows on the heels of his Grammy-nominated 2010 leader debut, Water [Motema] and its Grammy-nominated successor, Be Good [Motéma]. Both generated uncommon levels of crossover buzz for a release by a “jazz” singer. One reason is Porter’s dazzling toolkit—a resonant voice, multi-octave range, conversational projection and soulful feel. Another is his luminous songwriting—27 well-crafted originals on the three CDs that convey both grand metaphysical themes and intensely personal narratives in precise, symbolic, soul-baring language that evokes such late 20th-century masters as Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, Bill Withers and Abbey Lincoln, Donny Hathaway and Gil Scott-Heron. It’s also intriguing that the source of these introspections is a strapping, full-bearded ex-linebacker who built his Q-rating in the old-school, grassroots manner — several years of weekly Tuesday night appearances in the raucous confines of St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem, then a year of Thursday night three-setters at Smoke, the Upper West Side jazz club — after moving to New York in 2005.

“Some people told me, ‘Stop doing that damn gig,’” Porter says, recalling reaction to his appearances at St. Nick’s Pub. “But I dug that regular people would come in and buy a $3 beer and hear live jazz. So this lab that is St. Nick’s Pub — that is community, that is tourist — became this soulful place for me and the band as well. We enjoyed ourselves there for that little $30 or $40.”

These days Porter commands much higher fees. In five days, he would fly to Los Angeles to play the Hollywood Bowl, launching a summer itinerary of North American festival appearances and engagements in Europe, where he’s toured without respite during the past year. His fan base spans the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, and the former Soviet Union and Japan, where he was packing rooms well before Water launched his recording career. Increasingly his admirers also include peers and elders, including stylistically divergent artists like Wynton Marsalis, who in March cast Porter in the Trickster role originally inhabited by Jon Hendricks in a high-profile restaging of Blood On the Fields at the Rose Theater, and David Murray, who recruited Porter to sing lyrics by Ishmael Reed and Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets on Murray’s recently released Be My Monster Love.

“The hook-up with Gregory was one of the greatest things I could do with a vocalist,” Murray told me over the phone. “He can reach deep down, but also get up there, like the tenor or cello — he’s got power in all areas. He can sound like people, too. He can do all those things, which is phenomenal, and he’s a thinking man. I have total respect for him.”

“He has the spirit of the ’70s with a jazz aesthetic,” says Chip Crawford, Porter’s pianist from his earliest St. Nick’s Pub days. “I’m getting more and more amazed at his writing ability, plus his melodies are as good as anyone’s. At this point I don’t know if there is anyone who writes lyrics as well as him. And, if anybody has as good a voice as he does, let me hear it.”

“I try to be organic,” Porter says of his approach to making albums and writing lyrics. “I’m not calculating in terms of, ‘I want to write some modal music and connect it to Gregorian chant,’ which is a dope way to be as well. I open up my chest and arms and see what falls in there inspirationally, and these are the things that come out at the point of the release of energy. After everything is on the page, I look and say, ‘OK, this is what that is.’”

Having eased into the conversation, Porter adds, “I don’t mean to be throwaway about it, or like I’m not really thinking about everything.” He offers a creation story for “Wolf Song,” one of several pieces on Liquid Spirit that he generated during a fortnight in Europe shortly after his son was born and immediately before the mid-March recording session. “I had to get it done,” he recalls. “Concepts and even some lyrics formulated on the train across France. I remember looking at sheep on a hillside, and thinking: I wonder, are there any wolves? And then the thought: Boy who cried … boy who cries wolf. No. Girl who cries wolf. … Hmm. Have I had a girl cry ‘wolf’ for me about a love situation? Ah! The song started to write itself, right there on the train.”

Porter turned his attention to the title track, also conceived in France, while sitting in a coffee shop. “This piece of poetry flowed out of me quite easily,” he says, before reciting, plain-song: Un-re-route the river, let the dammed water be, there’s some people down the way that’s thirsty, so let the liquid spirit free. The folk are thirsty because of man’s unnatural hand. Watch what happens when the people catch wind of water hitting the backs of that hard, dry land.

“It came from people saying, ‘Where can I get some more of this kind of music? Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you.’ That energy, the music, love, culture and soul is somewhere, being re-routed or diverted. I wanted to be in front of people, and I didn’t have a gig. Now, I’m gigging, and I sing, and people say these things to me.”

[BREAK]

“Music is subliminal,” Porter told a sold-out room at Subculture, a new basement space on Bleecker Street where he was presenting a showcase for Liquid Spirit the Monday after his Pittsburgh weekend. He’d just flown in, and it was raining again, as was evident from the soaked lapels on his beige sport jacket, which draped a white shirt, black vest and olive bowtie that complemented his black headgear. “It’s hypnotic, in a way,” Porter continued. “No matter how tired my voice is, no matter how I’m dressed, I can sing.”

Porter had performed infrequently in New York over the past year, so, as he said in a later chat, this appearance spurred “a bit of pent-up demand.” He added that the attendees — roughly three-quarters of whom were African-Americans, an unusually high proportion for a downtown jazz event — “were real fans; I didn’t stuff the house with just my friends from down the street.”

From the very first tune, they signified allegiance with a call-and-response that continued throughout the 75-minute set. On the title track, a blues stomp with an Oscar Brown-ish feel, Porter had no need to augment the exhortation “clap your hands now” with a crash course on finding the beat. “Work Song,” which he addressed with stylized rawness, elicited shouts of “Unh-uh, child!” from several enthusiastic women. The “congregants” imposed their own master plan on the set-closer, transforming “1960-What,” a soul-stirring, socially conscious number from the Les McCann-Eddie Harris “Compared to What?” playbook, into a collective sing-along.

Between songs, Porter, who is 41, testified at some length. After “Work Song,” for example, he spoke of Bakersfield, California, the dusty agriculture-and-oil city where Porter moved at 8 from Los Angeles with his siblings and mother, a pastor in the Church of God and Christ, who, he told me, circumvented doctrinal proscriptions against female practitioners by “calling every church that she established a ‘mission’ so that she could be the head missionary and, essentially, the head preacher.”

Onstage at Subculture, he told the room: “My mother had a real desire to go to the churches with older congregations — small storefront, no-air-conditioning churches. If the music I heard there disappears, then it will be — watch this word, it’s kind of heavy — a kind of musical genocide.” Having landed on the next song’s title, “Musical Genocide,” Porter’s simultaneously wrenching and affirmative delivery of the lyric encapsulated a sensibility that he internalized while singing at those churches while his mother preached.

Give me a blues song
Tell the world what’s wrong
And the gospel singer giving those messages of love
And the soul man with your heart in the palm of his hand
Bringing his stories of love and pain.

“Black people came to Bakersfield from the South, and all the black ministers were thick, farmer-hand preachers,” Porter had told me while seated on a couch in his living room. “They were singing a lot of deep Southern gospel blues. So I was singing with these old men who had great voices. Ted Johnson sounded like Leadbelly. Elder Kemp and Elder Duffy had the style of James Brown, and Pastor Richardson sounded like dead-on Sam Cooke. Others sounded like John Lee Hooker, and others like Bobby Bland, except for that snorting thing he does between phrases.

“Many times I hated it because it was hot in the church, and here I am on my knees with all these old people, singing these blues. Yeah-esss, Yahyaess, Yesss, Yes, Yehhhs. Now, that chord progression, you’re singing it a hundred times over an hour, but each time it’s slightly different. ‘Yes, you will, Yes, He will; yes, we will, yes, we will.’ ‘Save my children. SAY-YA-VE my child-dreh-ehn, SAYVE MAH CHIL-dren…” On and on and on. Very much like jazz. Deviating from the melody. These voices were constantly harmonizing. We would all do it as a group. And it’s just happening. Nobody’s saying, ‘You get this part and you get this part.’ I appreciate that steeping of music now. Sometimes in a song, I’ll go to that place, and that’s the energy that fuels that moment.”

Porter’s ability to make musical decisions in real time in functional, ritualized contexts allows him to mix and match genres that don’t always coalesce in jazz expression circa 2013. “I’m not saying this because I’m a black man trying to take ownership of any music,” he says, “but when I heard jazz, certain saxophone players playing the blues or something, I was like, ‘I hear my grandfather preaching; that’s my grandmother moaning over it when she cooks.’ It wasn’t, ‘I want to get with that.’ I heard myself, and I was like, ‘There’s something for me there, too.’ Then I opened myself up to wider things.”

Not only did Porter directly experience and absorb the gospel-blues tradition, but also his mother’s social-gospel practice of “always going wherever the need was deepest, wherever the battle was.” As Porter describes it, she fed and clothed and cleaned the indigent, answered calls from denizens who had overdosed on heroin or a “Sherman” — a cigarette dipped in PCP.

“Some way, people would find a way to call her when they got in the deepest situations,” he says. “My mother would somehow drive to the rescue, pull somebody into the back seat of her brand-new Cadillac, wrap them up in a sheet and pour water on their head until they came to after 2 or 3 hours. In a way, we were in the trenches with her. That sticks with you.” He quotes“When Love Was King,” from Liquid Spirit: “He lifted up the underneath/and all this wealth he did bequeath. There’s a bit of my mother, Martin Luther King and Jesus Christ in that song. Redemption was a big thing for her. Her water sermons were very important when I was a child, which is probably where all these water themes are coming from in my music.”

BREAK

What primarily distinguishes Liquid Spirit from its predecessors is the pithiness of the 14 tracks — the track-lengths are shorter, the solo interludes fewer. Some have asked Porter whether this decision was to facilitate airplay for his “major label” debut. “Not really,” he says. “It’s a feeling of ‘Let me hit these blues and come off of them.’ I don’t put myself in the category of my influences — of great Japanese poetry or even the blues yet. But I want to get out these little ideas, restate them, and then rely on the energy it leaves to strike to the heart quickly, which to me is what a dope short blues song does.”

Porter’s path to blues expression as an avocation and not a sideline began in 1993, when his mother, on her deathbed with cancer, urged him “to really give singing a try.” He was then a 21-year-old undergraduate at San Diego State, where he’d matriculated on a football scholarship in 1990. A shoulder injury ended that dream, and Porter was focusing on city planning and “a nice government job, so she’d think I was doing something positive as she was leaving us.”

Eventually he started attending local jam sessions, which had a bebop flavor, “trying to get with Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure and Jon Hendricks,” sitting in with adept locals like trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos and saxophonist Daniel Jackson. One night, after he “tried to scat something over ‘Giant Steps,’” the master trombonist-composer George Lewis, a recent addition to the UC-San Diego faculty, invited him to his class.

“There were no vocalists there, and George started using me liberally from the beginning,” Porter says. “The students were dismissing the voice, but he said, ‘No, no, the voice is important; it does different things, it has its own qualities.’”

One day Lewis had to miss class, and called saxophonist-keyboardist-arranger Kamau Kenyatta to sub. “Kamau immediately brought me to his crib for lunch,” Porter says, recalling the beginning of an important and ongoing friendship (Kenyatta produced Water, and co-produced Be Good and Liquid Spirit with Brian Bacchus). “He did 12 charts, in my key, of different songs he thought would be good for me to learn. Kamau is from Detroit, and the relationship was in the tradition of that scene. You have lunch, do music, talk about it, play a bunch of songs. You live the music.”

In 1998, Porter, who was working at a Deepak Chopra Center for Wellbeing, (“personalizing body treatment oils and doing a bit of cooking in their kitchen”) went to a Hubert Laws recording session of Nat “King” Cole repertoire that Kenyatta was producing. Kenyatta asked Laws to listen to his protégé; Laws immediately invited Porter to sing a tune. His daughter, Eloise Laws, who was present, then urged Porter to attend a Los Angeles audition for the musical revue It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues. Porter, who had already appeared in the doo-wop musical Avenue X, was hired “on the spot” and joined the production for an 18-month run on Broadway. Then he did a national tour with the musical Civil War, returned to Los Angeles and started writing a musical — both songs and script — based on his relationship with the music of Nat Cole.

“I heard my mother’s Joe Williams and Nat Cole records when I was 5 or 6,” he recalls. “My father wasn’t around, and I’d look at Nat Cole’s LP covers and imagine he was my daddy. On mic checks and warm-ups for It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues. I’d sing ‘Mona Lisa,’ ‘When I Fall In Love,’ ‘Too Young,’ and the cats would comment that I should do something with it. I’d tell them how I got into him, and they’d respond that it was an interesting story, and at some point I realized that this was the story I had to tell.”

Nat King Cole and Me ran for two months at the Denver Center Theater, before 700-800 people a night. “They were responding to my songs as well as the Nat Cole songs,” Porter says. “That’s when the confidence in my songwriting began. Doing Ain’t Nothing But the Blues, I got so much exposure to great blues music, country to city, very sophisticated to just gutbucket. Just like jazz, I heard myself in it. Abbey Lincoln’s songs, her personal stories, made me realize that, sometimes, the more personal, the more universal. Then, too, the Bible and the style of speech in sermons convert well to song. Traveling around Europe, all those medieval cities, you feel like you should talk that way.”

Nat Cole and Me didn’t make it out of Denver, and its closing coincided with the end of a love affair. “I had a pocket full of money, and no place to go,” Porter says. “My brother was just setting up a coffee shop in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and he said, ‘Come here.’ So I came and worked in his shop, making soup. My idea was to stop going out and doing these small theater gigs that sustained me and kept insurance, to let me go broke, be hungry, but try solely to do the music thing.”

[BREAK]

With all the momentum that Porter has generated in New York, for all the charisma he possesses, and, as Liquid Spirit co-producer Brian Bacchus says, with “nothing to prove in terms of jazz credentials,” it is curious that Porter still “feels like on the outside looking in,” quoting “The In Crowd,” which he covers on Liquid Spirit.

“I chose it after I knew this would be on Blue Note,” Porter says. “It’s a little commentary to myself, like, ‘Am I in that crowd now?’ I don’t know. At St. Nick’s, Frenchmen and Spaniards came who said, ‘You should be in France, you should be in Spain.’ I felt it, but I didn’t have a passport yet.” He references “Bling Bling,” a song from Be Good: “I’m so rich in love and so poor in everything that makes love matter/I’ve got gifts to give, but no place for those gifts to live. Eventually, I started to get the opportunities, and once they came. … But you don’t have confidence right off the bat. In a way, you build to it.”

Porter is “increasingly comfortable in the fact that I can only be me.” He cites sage advice from Marsalis. “Wynton told me, ‘There’s some things you have that can’t be learned; I’m sure there are some things you could know that would be instrumental to you. Whether you have them or not, get them, put them in your back pocket, and access them. But at the same time, use the facility that you have.’

“I have many things that I desire to do. Coming to the public eye slightly formed, people almost thought, ‘There are 10 records I can get somewhere, right?’ And there’s not. I say, ‘If you want 10 records, you’ve got to wait. You have to wait that 8 years or however long it takes.’”

SIDEBAR:

Title: The Cat in the Hat

“My editor wanted me to ask you one question,” I told Porter at the end of our first conversation. Before I could mention that it was a query about his headgear, he interjected, “I know what the question is.” Then he laughed long and hard.

“Please tell me,” I said.

“It’s my jazz hat. I used to wear berets.”

“Do you wear it all the time? Are you wearing it just for me?”

“This is just for you. No …”

“How many do you have?”

“Many.”

“What’s the brand?”

“Well, this is a Kangol Summer Spitfire.”

“How many Kangols do you have?”

“These, I must have eight.”

“All the same?”

“No. I have a brown. I have five black. I have a red, a blue. … But the balaclavas, I have many-many-many. It’s my look, man. I’m recognized at a great distance.”

“How did the look begin?”

“Since I’ve been in Brooklyn. It’s been about six years.”

“What was the inspiration?”

“You do something one day, and you’re like, ‘This is my look.’”

“And you used to wear berets.”

“I used to wear berets. I still do every now and then, when I’m in church, you know.”

“Is the hat and the balaclava a sort of prop …”

“No.”

“…to sing? I mean, does it kind of put you in character or …”

“When I go out with my wife, I’m dressed like this, too. Now, when we come home and we’re relaxed, no. But this is my look, my public look. It is a jazz hat. The first time I went to Russia, they asked me about it, and the next time I came, the kids came to the concert dressed like me. This was over five years ago. I remember they were taking pictures with their cell phones. And the next time I came, they came to the concert looking like me.”

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Filed under George Lewis, Gregory Porter, Jazziz, Singers

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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