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Unsung

The Hidden-in-Plain-Sight Legacy of Jazz Vocal Pioneer Cassandra Wilson

BORDER CROSSING: Cassandra Wilson has expanded the boundaries of jazz for a host of singers and players.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 7/23/2008

Norah Jones reaped the rewards, but she didn't invent the sound. She sold more than 39 million albums worldwide with her taste for eclectic covers--from Hank Williams to Tom Waits to Duke Ellington--and for her ability to blend late-'50s jazz with early-'70s singer/songwriter music. She did it very well, but the template was already laid by Cassandra Wilson. Nor is Jones the only one to take advantage of Wilson's example; in recent years the Billboard jazz charts have been dominated by singers such as Lizz Wright, Madeleine Peyroux, Diana Krall, Kate McGarry, Holly Cole, Patricia Barber, and Jackie Allen. All owe a debt to Wilson.

When Wilson, a Mississippi native, moved from New Orleans to New Jersey in 1981, jazz vocal music was stuck in a time warp. While instrumental jazz had experienced a new revolution every four years, vocal jazz still acted as if it were 1954 and swing still ruled the charts. The repertoire was still the American Songbook of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Ellington, and the approach was still finger-snapping cool. Wilson herself fell into those old habits until she discovered the M-Base movement of young, adventurous jazzbos in Brooklyn. Saxophonist Steve Coleman, the group's unofficial leader, challenged her to go beyond the established formula and invent something new.

She took his words to heart and reinvented jazz singing not just once but twice. In her early collaborations with her M-Base pals--Coleman, Olu Dara, Jean-Paul Bourelly, Lonnie Plaxico, Rod Williams, Graham Haynes--she proved that you could turn their bristling mix of funk and free jazz into song, that you could sing melodies over unconventional harmonies, that you could improvise over R&B rhythms, and that you could write your own jazz songs to fit these requirements.

In 1993, when she signed with Blue Note Records after nine albums, Wilson reinvented herself--and jazz vocals--again. She proved jazz vocalists didn't have to cram a dozen notes into every measure; they could get as much out of a single, held-out note as Miles Davis' muted trumpet could. She would eventually record a trumpet-less tribute to Davis, Traveling Miles, and would apply his snaking leads and open, modal backdrops to every album. She proved that songs by Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Robert Johnson, and the Stylistics--the music of her own youth--could work in the jazz context as well as earlier pop songs by Gershwin and Harold Arlen. She proved that instrumental arrangements that owed as much to blues, rock, and soul as to swing and bebop could work as well.

This was not the usual case of a jazz singer crossing over to pop to make some money. The elasticity of Wilson's phrasing, the improvisatory freedom of every participant, the constant chord substitutions all marked this music as jazz. This was a case of a jazz singer reaching over into pop to grab ingredients that would enable her to rewrite the jazz recipe. It was no coincidence that Craig Street, the producer who helped her make this transition, also helped Jones make her debut album.

It wasn't as if Wilson were abandoning jazz history. She was emphatic that Billie Holiday had brought cool minimalism to jazz before Davis and deserved more credit as a jazz innovator than she ever got. Once a decade, Wilson records an album of American Songbook numbers, as if to prove that her radical changes to jazz singing are a continuation not a repudiation of the tradition of Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Betty Carter. Wilson released Blue Skies in 1988, Rendezvous in 1997, and this year has released Loverly (Blue Note).

The new disc contains Arlen's "Sleepin' Bee," Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You," Oscar Hammerstein's "Lover Come Back to Me," and Lerner and Loewe's title track, "Wouldn't It Be Loverly." And yet the collection sounds nothing like a Holiday or Fitzgerald album. The weird Brazilian/Mississippian rhythm Wilson has crafted for her Blue Note albums--rippling hand drums, inverted bass accents, rattling piano figures, moaning blues guitar, drawn-out vocal syllables, a sound she calls "Polynesian Slow Drag"--is applied to these old standards.

Pianist Jason Moran, perhaps the most original jazz figure of this decade, was so impressed by Wilson's innovations of the '90s that he borrowed her guitarist and much of her sound for his own band. Moran has now repaid the favor by playing piano on "Loverly" and bringing that guitarist, Marvin Sewell, back with him. Joining them are Wilson's old M-Base pal bassist Plaxico, New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley, and Yoruban percussionist Lekan Babalola.

Moran transforms Ellington's "Caravan" with alternating triplets and pauses on the piano that give the arrangement a push-and-pull rhythm. Riley and Babalola reinforce this with second-line parade beats. Wilson responds by delaying and then rushing her phrasing in a way that builds rhythmic suspense and then releases it. A similar Third World flavor is imparted to Luis Bonfa's Brazilian classic "Black Orpheus," which captures the late phase of a party when everyone wants to keep dancing but can only do so in slow motion. Wilson sings as if in a brokenhearted swoon, and the band follows her cue.

Wilson produced the new album herself, but Craig Street, her crucial collaborator in the '90s, has produced The Orchard (Verve Forecast), the third straight album from Lizz Wright to land in the top three of Billboard's Contemporary Jazz Chart. Though this disc includes songs from country star Mel Tillis, R&B pioneer Ike Turner, rock band Led Zeppelin, and gospel group Sweet Honey in the Rock, six of the 12 songs were co-written by Wright and Toshi Reagon, both the daughters of Georgia gospel singers. Reagon, who grew up in Washington, D.C., as the child of Sweet Honey's Bernice Reagon, is an important singer/songwriter in her own right and lends tart lyrics to Wright's jazz/Americana blend.

There's much more gospel and less jazz in Wright's singing than in Wilson's, but both women grew up in the rural South, where both country and blues were in the air, and they both allow those childhood experiences to seep into their adult music. Wright begins her new album with "Coming Home," a slow hymn she wrote with Reagon about getting back to those roots. Wright's big, muscular alto is a thrilling instrument, and Street surrounds it with the push-and-pull of Wilson's "Polynesian Slow Drag" with help from Ollabelle's Glenn Patscha and Calexico's John Convertino and Joey Burns.

Most of the other numbers deal with the vicissitudes of romance--the pull of desire and the buffeting of mistreatment--and the elasticity of Wilson's approach is quite effective on these songs of indecision. On "Leave Me Standing Alone," an emphatic blues tune written with Reagon, Wright declares that she had to run away to escape a love she wanted too much. She slows down Turner's "I Idolize You," and even as she makes the title confession, she fills it with regret. She turns Led Zep's "Thank You" into an acoustic-guitar ballad, a pledge of love despite all her bad experiences in the past. Best of all is Tillis' "Strange," for when Wright sings, "Strange how you stopped loving me," her bewilderment is captured in her searching-for-the-right-words vocal and in Chris Bruce's eerily shimmering guitar.

Wilson's influence is heard everywhere these days. She is the example that eased the collaborations between Wynton Marsalis (who featured her on his Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz oratorio Blood in the Fields) and Willie Nelson (their new duo album Two Men With the Blues recently landed in the pop top 10) and between Elvis Costello (Wilson sang two of his songs on Bill Frisell's The Sweetest Punch) and Diana Krall. It was Wilson's example that allowed Jackie Allen to include songs by Van Morrison, Randy Newman, and Steely Dan on her new album of jazz standards, Tangled (Blue Note). It enabled Kate McGarry to include songs by Bob Dylan and the Cars on her forthcoming album of jazz standards, If Less Is More . . . Nothing Is Everything (Palmetto).

Yet you rarely hear people citing Wilson as a major jazz innovator. There is still a persistent prejudice in jazz against taking women or vocalists seriously--and if you're a female singer, then forget about it. Just as people once said nice things about Billie Holiday's singing but refused to acknowledge her influence beyond the vocalists' ghetto, they now say the same thing about Wilson. But she has had an impact not only on singers like Jones and Wright but also on instrumentalists as diverse as Moran, Frisell, Marsalis, and Greg Osby. There's no doubt she owns a large piece of modern jazz's DNA; it's just too bad it's on the wrong chromosome.

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