"I've often tried to figure out what it is, exactly, we're doing," says singer Cassandra Wilson, with a laugh. "You know, to find the words to describe it."
Why would Wilson have trouble describing her own music?
Perhaps because most of the standard vocabulary doesn't really apply. Although she's clearly a jazz singer, the fact that she's as apt to sing something by Hank Williams or Joni Mitchell as by Hoagy Carmichael or Billie Holiday means that her approach doesn't quite fit the average listener's notion of the genre.
"The only thing that I can come up with is that [our music] is looking back at the same time it's looking at now," she says. "It's a translation of that energy, a modification, an adaptation. But it still retains the core of that older music."
Fortunately for her, the reviewers have had considerably less trouble finding words of praise for her music. Time dubbed her "America's most important and daring jazz vocalist," while Downbeat gushed that her current album, "New Moon Daughter," is "an instant classic."
There have also been critics who have questioned the validity of her approach, arguing that because she avoids a strict diet of standards and likes to draw from country music, blues and R&B, that she shouldn't be considered a jazz singer. Naturally, Wilson thinks that argument is misguided.
"I think there are a lot of people who are holding onto a notion of LTC what they believe is traditional jazz, and it serves them to do that," she says. "Otherwise, they're kind of out of a job, or out of a pocket, or something. But it's unfortunate, because as the music grows -- and jazz has always been a music that evolves -- it has to connect with our contemporary lives. That's the kind of music that it is."
Wilson doesn't downplay the importance of older jazz styles. Indeed, when she was a member of the M-Base collective with Steve Coleman and Graham Haynes, the three used to transcribe and memorize Charlie Parker solos -- even though M-Base was anything but a be-bop group. As Wilson puts it, knowing that stuff "is part of the jazz tradition. It's to learn the vocabulary.
"I always thought of myself as a musician, so I always wanted to approach the music with [an instrumentalist's] sensibility," she adds. "It's not just about delivering lyrics; it's about getting inside of the music."
Above all, it's about musical expression. "I'm doing a Michael Jackson song for the Essence awards," she says by way of illustration. "I found that every time I sang it, I would do something different to it. Because it's my nature to find a way around the music that suits me -- that has to do with an individual style, yet retains what the song is about. All of it is mixed up in there. But when you get onstage, there's no telling what will happen.
"That's what a jazz singer is," she says. "That's what jazz singers do."
Pub Date: 5/09/96
When: Tonight at 8
Where: New 9: 30 Club, 815 V St. N.W., Washington
Call: (703) 218-6500 for tickets, (202) 783-0360 for information
Sundial: To hear excerpts from Cassandra Wilson's new release, "New Moon Daughter," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the code 6180. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2A.