Cassandra Wilson continues to explore


April 06, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

I resisted the trip. The first time I played Cassandra Wilson's New Moon Daughter soon after its release in 1995, it stopped me cold. This was my introduction to the artist's bare-bones, folk-suffused, Delta-blues brand of jazz. And I wasn't ready to go with her. I wondered what all those jive New York critics were raving about.

The Mississippi woman's thick, elixir voice and languorous way of singing just didn't move me at all. I thought about taking the album to the used-CD shop down the street, but I decided against it and slid the disc onto the bottom shelf. I didn't revisit the set for almost five years.

In the meantime, I graduated from college, moved to a new city, got into a new groove. Then one suede-gray Sunday in my apartment in Philly, I wiped the dust off of New Moon Daughter and put it on. Something clicked: "This girl ain't bad after all."

Since then, I've bought several Cassandra Wilson albums, mostly her stuff on Blue Note. Some I've relished from start to finish: 1993's Blue Light `Til Dawn, a jewel of a record; and 2003's Glamoured, a sensual master stroke. Others were too uneven: 1999's Traveling Miles, perhaps Cassandra's only misfire; and 2002's Belly of the Sun, whose title I loved but the project meandered too much. In the past decade, Cassandra has explored '60s rock, '70s soul, ancient spirituals and old-timey blues. Dig her or not, the singer-songwriter's artistic fearlessness is certainly admirable.

And she continues to chart different sonic terrain on her new album, her 15th overall, the adventurous Thunderbird.

"It was a wonderful opportunity to once again explore the unknown," says the Grammy-winning artist, who's calling from her native Jackson, Miss. "I like to believe that jazz is an evolving form. It was a way for me to evolve with more contemporary sounds."

Thunderbird is unlike Glamoured, its predecessor. Where the previous album trickled like a peaceful fountain, the new one crashes down then recedes like an ocean wave. The most noticeable difference is the harder textures: programmed R&B drum loops and trip-hop sequences. Produced by T-Bone Burnett and Keith "Keefus" Ciancia, Thunderbird still delves into the twangy blues that color nearly all of Cassandra's music.

"It was more of a collaborative effort in that the sequencer and keyboards were orchestrating the ebb and flow of the music, which determined how the lyrics were written," she says. "It was a challenge in that I heard [the songs] in more [of] a textural and rhythmic context. I had to work on navigating the melody with a different muscle. It was challenging but fun."

There's something almost psychedelic about the 10 songs on Thunderbird. Cassandra's voice is bewitching anyway. Now, her producers place it in trippy soundscapes, sometimes manipulating her voice and folding it into the swirling mix of organic and programmed instrumentation. "Go to Mexico," the leadoff track, boasts a rolling groove built upon a sample from the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian band the Wild Tchoupitoulas. It's noisy, even a little jarring at first.

But, as the album plays on, the arrangements pull back a bit, revealing more of Cassandra's mastery of melodic nuance. "Easy Rider," one of the highlights, is an old Blind Lemon Jefferson blues number that crackles and smolders with well-controlled passion. "It Would Be So Easy" is a modern soul gem emboldened with Cassandra's delicate improvisational approach. With its penetrating bass line, the sexy "Poet" would be at home on a Meshell Ndegeocello album. It's one of the better sensual tunes Cassandra has written."`Poet' is a song I had been working on prior to going into the studio," she says. "It's about how you can be inspired by that aspect of physical love and how it can move you and lift you to become more poetic in your everyday life."

Supernatural pleasures of the flesh aside, Cassandra plans to tour soon to support Thunderbird. But for now, the former New Yorker is concentrating on more serious matters, like caring for her mother, who's suffering from Alzheimer's, and raising her 17-year-old son, Jaris.

"There's so much stimulation in New York City," Cassandra says, sounding serious. "There's an overabundance, and that can be problematic for young black males. ... It was a hard adjustment at first, but [Jaris] is doing fine. My mother, we're taking it one day at a time. I plan to get on the road again, but I haven't thought about the stage yet."

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