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Reeling You In

Hard to imagine Cassandra Wilson being the way she is if she were not from Mississippi. It‘s Deep South hot in her mind, so she doesn’t move much. Same with her singing, a moan that‘s leisurely even when she scats. Her rhythms are like a big river, not a city crosswalk. She doesn’t 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 innovation’s 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 audience‘s youth) with the blues and her own tunes, all polished with producer Craig Street’s 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 there’s still a certain degree of awkwardness that I have about ‘celebrity’ status. It‘s not what I’m doin‘ this for.” You’d expect her speech to be unhurried, and it is, her Southern accent surfacing mainly in the long I‘s -- “I’m feeling fahn.”

Her last two albums, the Miles Davis tribute Traveling Miles and last year‘s 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, don’t call undue attention to themselves; they‘re a beautiful frame, and Wilson’s 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 hasn‘t 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. “He’s 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 Wilson‘s 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. Wilson’s 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. I‘m also interested in developing a way of phrasing that’s 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 you‘re singing.” She does all that. Representational and abstract. When you see her, don’t let her get away without doing Antonio Carlos Jobim‘s “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 don’t smoke too much.” No hate mail, okay?

With all the attention on Wilson‘s voice, you could forget why her records feature so much guitar, others’ and her own. That‘s 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. It’s not a fixed instrument. It‘s pliable, it’s flexible. And a good guitar is so warm, there‘s something about it that’s just so soothing to me.”

Wilson is calmer than ever before. “There were times in my life when I‘ve been very insecure, but I learn to like myself more and more each year.” And now, she’s 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.