In a world of niche audiences, the singer who refuses to go gently into a particular niche and stay there is at best a challenge and at worst a double agent. Cassandra Wilson, the willfully original jazz singer, has been puzzling her audiences for nearly half of her fifty-two years. Jazz radar first picked her up as a member of the nineteen-eighties collective M-Base, whose name, an acronym for MacroBasic Array of Structured Extemporizations, signalled its attempt to promulgate new ways of thinking about improvisation. With M-Base she worked as both leader and sideman in styles from avant-garde jazz to funk. Her originality, irresistibly evident in her confidential smokehouse contralto, spurred admirers to coax her into a more glamorous career—as a star. A beautiful, voluptuous woman, with a golden complexion and an inviting smile, she has now been a star for two decades, but a reluctant one, known for her expansion of the jazz repertory and her eagerness to lose herself in an ensemble. She seems intent on maintaining the attitude of a sideman. If it isn’t a team effort, where’s the fun? If you can’t take risks, what’s the point?
Wilson’s refusal to accept any single idea of how to steer her career was apparent last week with the release of a new album and two very different New York appearances. The album, “Loverly,” is an unalloyed triumph, and her record company, Blue Note, is promoting it as her first album of standards in twenty years. (The claim is off by a decade—everyone seems to want to forget her 1997 record, “Rendezvous”—but still.) Singing during an air-conditioning failure at the Blue Note (the club—no relation to the record label), she gave a glowing account of the material from the album. Despite the steam-bath ambience—standards, she noted, were written before air-conditioning—she sang with open-throated, pitch-perfect vivacity, nailing every song. But two days before, at BAM, as the climax of a monthlong festival devoted to the heritage of the Mississippi Delta—Wilson is a native of Jackson, Mississippi—her intonation wavered a bit as she indulged in endless vamping grooves, sacrificing melodic concision for rhythmic repetition. Wilson has always thrived on rhythmic complexity, but her best work, including “Loverly,” balances it with melodic, harmonic, and verbal nuances that transform evergreens into personal deliberations, frequently underscored with an ironic eroticism. If the BAM performance, alternately gripping and monotonous, left some in the audience bewildered, it succeeded in driving home her unconventional achievement, combining promiscuous collaboration (both engagements featured the prodigious twenty-one-year-old pianist Jonathan Batiste) and determination to rethink the jazz songbook.
Read the full article here: The New Yorker: Reluctant Diva ~ The unpredictable Cassandra Wilson.