Cassandra Wilson's words of honey

Jazz to folk, she smoothly captures 'my experience'

Music: in concert, CDs

October 09, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

A piece of the sun glitters in her throat. When Cassandra Wilson opens her mouth to sing, the words flow, drenched in honey warmth and light. She brightens melodies, brings lyrical tales to life. Call her music jazz if you want.

But categorization is pointless. For years, she has been a puzzlement -- a master of melodic nuance and improvisational phrasing who interprets songs from the blues, folk, pop, soul and country canons over eclectic all-acoustic arrangements.

Don't ask the Mississippi woman to explain what she does so effortlessly. That's pointless, too.

Calling from her New York apartment, Wilson sighs into the phone and chuckles a bit.

"I do what I do," she says. "That's it. The songs really come from my experience, and my experience is not confined to one genre of music. I just look at the essence of a song and make it relevant to me."

It's not unusual for Wilson to drift from a Hank Williams' classic ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry") to a Monkees' tune ("Last Train to Clarksville") during the course of an album. She did just that on her 1995 best-seller, New Moon Daughter. On Glamoured, her latest album and fifth release for Blue Note, Wilson gathers tunes from various songbooks -- Southern soul, pop, rock. And she wrote five of Glamoured's 12 cuts. The record is tighter and more fluid than its predecessor, last year's Belly of the Sun, which garnered solid reviews. (The album before that one, 1999's Traveling Miles, was an ambitious but flawed tribute to Miles Davis.) Like a delicious daydream, the music and Wilson's inspired readings on Glamoured draw you in.

"I got the idea for the album title when I was on tour in Dublin," says Wilson, 48. "I got to thinking about the meaning of glamoured, and everything evolved from there. It's a Gaelic word with several meanings, but the one I like best is 'to be whisked away.' Musically, the album is about digging deeper into the rhythms and the genesis of African-American music."

Wilson has been digging into such richness since '93, when she put out her breakthrough album, Blue Light 'Til Dawn. The record arrested critics with its folksy, percussive rhythms and deep blues sensibilities. Floating above the spare mix was Wilson's husky voice, an instrument with an enveloping tone. Although the spirit of her musical vision recalls such independent jazz sisters as Abbey Lincoln and Betty Carter, the artist has established herself as an original. You know her when you hear her. That warmth is unmistakable.

She was born and raised in Jackson, Miss. Wilson's father, a postman, was a multi-instrumentalist who exposed his daughter to Thelonious Monk, Davis, Johnny Mathis and Nancy Wilson. Later in college, Wilson's tastes expanded to include Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins.

Around 1982, Wilson, who had worked in New Orleans as the assistant public affairs director at a local TV station, left the South and moved to New York to pursue a full-time singing career. She became a regular at local jam sessions around Manhattan. During this period, she received a hands-on education in jazz, how to communicate with players, share and extend ideas. In '85, the singer released a promising debut, Point of View, which featured mostly standards, showcasing Wilson's budding unconventional approach. But it would be almost 10 years before her work snagged any real attention. New Moon Daughter won a Grammy in 1996.

Wilson is in studios and on the road frequently. But when she's not working, the singer is devoted to her 14-year-old son, Jaris.

"It's difficult," the singer says. "A lot of people ask me why there's so much time between records. It's because I have to be close by while my son is in school. He's a good kid, starting to assert himself. He's 14 going on 21."

Wilson says she's more relaxed these days as her son and her music grow.

"I feel so much more comfortable on the stage now," she says. "It takes a while to find your voice. It took a while for me. Now performing is more pleasurable, more stimulating."

And more illuminating for all of us.

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