Hard to imagine Cassandra Wilson being the way she is if she were not from Mississippi. Its Deep South hot in her mind, so she doesnt move much. Same with her singing, a moan thats leisurely even when she scats. Her rhythms are like a big river, not a city crosswalk. She doesnt knock you down, she reels you in like a catfish.
Formerly a mudfoot, Wilson has become a citizen of the world following the best kind of success story. Her exceptional folk, blues and jazz gifts went begging for a long time in the blind alleys of pop fashion. In the late 80s she hung with the sprungfunky improvisers of the M-BASE Collective, and received innovations usual reward (spare change). She recorded some old-time standards. Then she got signed to Blue Note Records and released the 1993 and 1996 albums Blue Light Til Dawn and New Moon Daughter, which blended the pop songs of her youth (and the boomer audiences youth) with the blues and her own tunes, all polished with producer Craig Streets moderne aesthetic. The combination clicked, and out of the blue, as she lived out her fourth decade, she found herself drooled over in Time and named in the glossies most beautiful surveys.
How did that feel? A bit awkward at first, Wilson says by phone. And theres still a certain degree of awkwardness that I have about celebrity status. Its not what Im doin this for. Youd expect her speech to be unhurried, and it is, her Southern accent surfacing mainly in the long Is -- Im feeling fahn.
Her last two albums, the Miles Davis tribute Traveling Miles and last years Belly of the Sun, have established her in ideal settings under the guidance of a new producer, a certain Cassandra Wilson. The sound is full, flowing, sensual. The instruments, including a lot of guitars, dont call undue attention to themselves; theyre a beautiful frame, and Wilsons voice is the picture. She recorded Belly of the Sun in a Mississippi railway station.
You have to set the right ambiance for the music to come. I really enjoy doing that, says Wilson. She hasnt been over-involved in the technical end as a producer, though she did insist on renting a vintage analog reverb unit: A big machine. It comes in a suitcase. It had these handles on it, real bizarre-looking.
Wilson also employed the services of a vintage human being, octogenarian pianist Abie Boogaloo Ames, on a couple of tracks. Hes a great musician, very typical of what Mississippi musicians do, which is combining the blues and jazz. He almost acts as a missing link. He took time out to teach all of us about the blues.
You might say the blues has been Wilsons primary course of study, though she spent substantial college time on other subjects: philosophy (why not?) and theater -- at one time she wanted to be a film actress. She finally took a degree in mass communications, even worked as a TV journalist. Wilsons mass communication, though, is a different kind: My music has always been about the music, not learning how to market it or broadcast it.
What about her technique? You have to get inside of yourself to truly deliver a lyric. You have to mean it. Im also interested in developing a way of phrasing thats very conversational and evocative, and even dealing with the texture of words -- how you can sing a word that makes it sound like the thing that youre singing. She does all that. Representational and abstract. When you see her, dont let her get away without doing Antonio Carlos Jobims Waters of March.
And the tone. It sounds . . . smoky. Does she? I am a smoker. But I smoke cigarettes that have no chemicals or additives. And I dont smoke too much. No hate mail, okay?
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With all the attention on Wilsons voice, you could forget why her records feature so much guitar, others and her own. Thats her ax, and you can hear the smile when she talks about it.
You can create all kinds of fascinating tunings; I always create tunings for songs. Its not a fixed instrument. Its pliable, its flexible. And a good guitar is so warm, theres something about it thats just so soothing to me.
Wilson is calmer than ever before. There were times in my life when Ive been very insecure, but I learn to like myself more and more each year. And now, shes at her best. She sang it on Traveling Miles: In this quiet place I ownWorlds are born.
Cassandra Wilson performs with Brandon Ross (guitar), Jeffrey Haynes (percussion), Calvin Jones (bass guitar), Reginald Veal (acoustic bass) and Gregoire Maret (harmonica) at the Knitting Factory, Thursday through Saturday, January 23 through 25.