Get this: The best jazz singer in the world is not a jazz singer at all. Nope, I don’t mean Diana Krall, a true diva with maximum glitz and hypnotic, behind-the-beat phrasing. Or Kurt Elling, the Chicago-based virtuoso who can improvise arching leaps worthy of a vocal Superman. Or Dianne Reeves, a hard-swinging traditionalist. Or handsome Peter Cincotti, a nice kid who’s not-yet-ready to sing the deep blues. Instead, my vote goes to Cassandra Wilson, a proud Mississippian-cum-New Yorker whose simmering, low-moan delivery can rattle the sub-woofers of your soul. She’s the ultimate jazzer simply because she is not just about jazz.
As a singer, Wilson forms a sonic blur, a moving target impossible to nail down. She’s pop–taking bubble-gum babble like the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville” and reshaping it as a desperate lover’s plea for a coffee-colored kiss. She embodies the blues, too, that rare woman who can take a wicked Robert Johnson tune brimming with machismo and ride it to Armageddon, hellhound on her trail. Wilson’s up-and-down discography covers storylines by Neil Young and Cole Porter and everything in-between. Not everything works, mind you, but it all sounds real–always.
Unlike so many jazz singers, Wilson eschews flashy, sca t-like pyrotechnics. Execution takes a backseat to the texture of her voice and the contour of the storyline. Imagine yourself trapped in roomful of liars, tied up by tangled conversation of half-truths and clichés. Then, in walks someone with a simple message delivered with quiet elegance. To these tired ears, that’s what Wilson offers: a little truth in a world dominated by shuck and jive.
Wilson hasn’t visited these parts since 1988, when the ArtsCenter in Carrboro took a chance on a relative unknown singing her own eclectic compositions. At the time, her edgey repertoire was situated somewhere between angular jazz-fusion and the arty avant garde. But that was a millennium or so ago.
The Cassandra you’ll experience at N.C. State University’s Stewart Theatre on March 31 has changed big time. She’s a bona fide star, a Grammy-winner whose best-selling Blue Light ‘Til Dawn (Blue Note) stands as one of the enduring discs of the ’90s. Fronting a tight touring quartet that sounds something like an Afro-Latino chamber orchestra–imagine that!–Wilson in concert will unleash the swagger of a confident innovator ready to kick butt right now.
I spoke to Wilson on the phone last week in a conversation where we compared Southern drawls and discussed the delicious prospect of change. Her new Blue Note album, as yet untitled, probably will appear in the summer.
Independent: No one at Blue Note seems to know much about your new record. Can you tell me about it–or are you sworn to secrecy?
Wilson: Sorry, I’ve taken the oath (laughter). It’s difficult to talk about the project because we’re simply not finished with it. But here’s what I can tell you: I’m working with T-Bone Burnett (Los Lobos, Elvis Costello). He’s just an amazing, amazing producer. There are some things that are going on that are probably against the law musically. Wild things. It’s a totally different approach for me–and that’s good, because it is exactly the right time for me to try something radically different.
There are some new friends of mine on the sessions, like the great [singer-guitarist] Keb’ Mo’. And since we’re recording on the West Coast, there are many Los Angeles musicians like drummer Jim Keltner.
The legendary Jim Keltner, who has played with everyone from John Lennon to Bill Frisell?
I love the way he plays with brushes.
In fact, he plays with everything but the kitchen sink. He does some amazing textural things that are absolutely otherworldly.
Tell me about one new Cassandra Wilson composition on the record.
There are several, but the one that I’m really obsessed with right now is called “The Poet.” I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s listening to many different kinds of music. I loved that era. There was some folk music on the radio–and the rock and roll from that period was a blending of folk and jazz and the blues. So I’m compelled to revisit that sort of style and sound, yet bring something new to it. I try to bring it up to 2005. That’s what “The Poet” is about.
Are you playing some guitar on the record?
Yes, I play a lot of guitar on the record, but it’s gonna be so low in the mix that you won’t be able to hear it (laughter).
You know, I’ve always been attracted to you as a woman of the South, proud and roots-conscious. But sometimes I worry about you spending so much time in the Big City. I’m half-kidding, but I’m worried about you losing your Southern accent.
Do forgive me, but please understand that I will always remain a Southern woman. You cannot take the Southern out of me. I love the South–and I love everything that the South says about hospitality, grace, color and beauty. It will always be there inside me.
In fact, I would say the Southern feeling in my bones is even stronger because I’m so far removed from the South. I haven’t lived there for so many years. So since I’m away from home, I romanticize about it. I long for those feelings. There’s a sweetness about the South that just gets richer. So it’s important that I recreate the feeling of home in my music somehow.
It seems like yesterday that you were the hot young singer on the scene. Now you’re the old lady–and I mean that in a respectful way. How does it feel to look around you and see a new generation of talented though less experienced singers sharing the limelight?
It feels great. It feels great to have gained a certain amount of wisdom. It feels good to step back from the fray and really savor the life and career that I have. I feel fortunate to have made the music that I’ve made–and played with so many fantastic musicians. And I’ll continue to do that.
Your taste in tunes written by other composers is impeccable. Some of the women artists you’ve admired–like Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln–have left marks not only as singers, but as composers. How important is it to have a legacy not only as a singer, but as something more?
Writing music and lyrics is very important to me. Historically, there have been many singers who have not been as innovative as composers. Go back 50 years, and it was almost unheard of for a singer to be writing her own songs, particularly in jazz. It’s critical for me to be part of a generation that’s contributing to a change in how people perform. I not only want to be a singer in the band, but a writer, someone who’s maturing and changing every day.
The music business, obviously, remains a chauvinistic game. As a songwriter, are you carrying the torch for other women?
That’s a part of the story we’re still working on. The feelings of women need to be expressed. Women as composers should be represented in music to the point that people aren’t even making a distinction between a man’s point of view and a woman’s, if you know what I mean.
As a woman, is it difficult to lead a band of men?
It can be–especially when you’re the only woman on the tour bus. Then again, I’m at an age where my feathers don’t get ruffled much. I’m at a point where I can be a woman and I don’t have to prove myself to any man. I don’t have to act like a man. I can be a woman and be very much in charge. And I like that. It’s taken a while to get there, but I can lead a band and I let ’em know that it’s my group. “You guys just gotta get in line–or get out.” It’s real simple.
Joining Wilson in Raleigh will be her veteran tour combo: guitarist Brandon Ross, percussionist Jeffrey Haynes and bassist Reginald Veal. For tickets and/or more information, call 515-1100 or visit www.ncsu.edu/arts .