[13 June 2008]
Call me a regional supremacist, but the variegated sounds and rhythms of the Dirty South has dominated my aural landscape for much of this year. Southern heroes and heroines like Al Green, Cee-Lo Green, Lizz Wright, Erykah Badu, and Jason Moran have been in heavy rotation. Our beloved Roots crew and their stellar Rising Down, along with Bob Dylan’s 1965 classic Bringing It All Back Home, disrupted my Southern flow for a minute this May, but for the most part, my speakers have been pumping the sounds of Dixie pretty consistent and pretty hard.
Chances that my regional focus will shift became even slimmer with the release of Cassandra Wilson’s latest project, Loverly. The Jackson, Mississippi native has once again produced a fine recording which splendidly merges the old and the new, the mundane and the profound, the cosmopolitan and the local. Nods of approval for Wilson’s latest release should come from diehard fans of her classic JMT material (Point of View, Blue Skies, and She Who Weeps), as well as those enamored with her Blue Note notables like Blue Light ‘Til Dawn, New Moon Daughter, and Traveling Miles. Everything you expect from a Wilson release—superb musicianship, adventurous left-turns, remarkable group chemistry, emotional depth, and a brooding sensuality—can be found on Loverly. It is clear on this release that Wilson understands the power of her voice and her presence. With great craftsmanship and flair, she showcases her deft interpretive skills and her intimate knowledge of the American songbook. Embracing both tradition and her own singularity, the gifted songstress rips through Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” with the ease of a seasoned veteran, conjures the spirit of her beloved muse, Betty Carter, in “Spring Can Really Hang You Up”, and showers praise on a lover with the beautiful “Til There Was You”.
To her credit, Wilson surrounds herself with more than capable musicians. Her label mate and arguably the most gifted pianist of his generation, Jason Moran, plays on all but two songs. An imaginative musician whose solo releases (Modernistic, Bandwagon, Same Mother, and Artist in Residence) stand out as some of the most innovative work of this decade, Moran excels in this laidback setting by dropping loads of finesse, humor, and intelligence. Equally impressive on Loverly is the work of guitarist Martin Sewell, drummer Herlin Riley, percussionist Lekan Babalola, and bassist Lonnie Plaxico. All adjust remarkably to Wilson’s subtle shifts in moods, tempos, and genres.
So consistent is the band’s playing that one hesitates to shine the spotlight on any one particular song; however, Wilson and her supporting cast’s reading of “St. James Infirmary” and Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” deserves special praise. The combination of Sewell’s bluesy guitar licks and Moran’s boogie woogie piano provides a perfect foil for Wilson’s sagacious yet sassy vocals on the former track. Now a stable in her live repertoire, “St. James Infirmary” proves why the term “peerless” often comes to mind when discussing Wilson’s interpretive skills. Her nuanced phrasing and pregnant silences add mystery to a classic Southern tale narrated previously by voices as diverse as Louis Armstrong, Bobby Blue Bland, and Archie Shepp. Sadness marks most versions of “St. James” but Wilson’s rendition has the upbeat feeling of a New Orleans funeral march.
The same wicked pride marks Wilson’s magical reading of “Dust My Broom”. Twisting the narrative’s gender dimensions, Wilson’s sensual contralto carries the stories and hopes of Southern women who’ve winked at the tragicomic reality of life rather than sulk in despair (“Well, you can mistreat me in New York City but you can’t mistreat me when I go home”.).
Ending her release with the beautiful “The Very Thought of You”, which features bassist Reginald Veal, and the snappy “A Sleepin’ Bee”, Wilson closes her “standards” album on a high note, laying to rest any doubts about her status as one of the most fearless and versatile talents in contemporary jazz.
Nearly a quarter century after her arrival on the music scene as part of the M-Base Collective, Cassandra Wilson—the artist and the symbol—still matters. Even as the cultural movements which spurred her rise and prominence withered under the pressure of expectations and market forces, she’s remained relevant to and for the times. Loverly not only showcases her genius but serves as a inspirational reminder to left of center artists that one can thrive in the world of popular music with soul and mind intact.