You would be hard-pressed to find a jazz singer in the last 20 years who has done a better job of combining popular and artistic success than Cassandra Wilson. When most jazz musicians turn to pop tunes and pop stylings, it is a purely calculated move. But when Wilson changed her direction in 1993 with Blue Light Till Dawn, embracing a guitar-centric band sound and combining Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, and Robert Johnson tunes with jazz standards, she took a fruitful creative risk. Since then, Wilson has restlessly nipped from many edges of the American music spectrum. It has usually been exciting, and it has never seemed lazy or easy.
Silver Pony is another story.
If this was the first Cassandra Wilson you had ever heard, I suppose it would be a revelation. Her deep and delicious voice is as elastic as ever, and her choice of material is fun and funky: “St. James Infirmary”, the bossa “A Day in the Life of a Fool”, McCartney’s “Blackbird”, blues tunes sung with originality, plus ambiguous originals that serve her voice and band very well. Silver Pony sets a strong mood, and Wilson and her band combine with great musicality.
But Silver Pony is also the sound of Cassandra Wilson coasting.
It starts with the first two songs, live versions of songs from her last recording, Loverly. “Lover Come Back to Me” and “St. James Infirmary” are just fine here, with Wilson’s new pianist Jonathan Batiste sounding fresh as can be on the former and guitarist Marvin Sewell getting gritty on the latter. But these new versions don’t do anything significant to rework the material. “Fool” is another live track featuring this crack band, and it reminds us—and this is the key phrase regarding all of Silver Pony—reminds us how good Wilson is with a haunting bossa.
Throughout this recording, Wilson fans are likely to be sent back to just what they’ve liked about her over the years. The funky impressionism of “Blackbird”—re-harmonized in a lovely way—might remind you of her “Tupelo Honey” cover. The percolating groove of “Silver Moon” brings in Ravi Coltrane to spar with the singer, giving the listener a hint of her old M-BASE collaborations with Steve Coleman or Gary Thomas. And “Watch the Sunrise”—a duet with soul crooner John Legend—may remind fans of her duet with neo-soul singer India.Arie on Belly of the Sun, where it was (and is) being genuinely difficult at first to distinguish between the two voices. “Saddle Up My Pony” is a ripping slide guitar version of a Charlie Patton tune, just the kind of thing that Wilson and her band do well. But that’s the thing: it’s one of her bags, and here it is again. Again.
The other odd rehash element of Silver Pony is Wilson’s decision to use two excerpts from live instrumental jams on this recording. “Silver Moon” is preceded by “A Night in Seville”, a popping little two-chord groove that doesn’t go anywhere and—honest to goodness—sounds like Phish on a night when they just weren’t making it. Later, 39 seconds of a Latin groove is titled “Silver Pony” is turned into its own track. Huh? Listeners ought to be confused by this. And, possibly, miffed.
So what’s left? By my count, two of the 11 tracks on this album could have been part of a better, more original, truly new Cassandra Wilson album. “Forty Days and Forty Nights” is a fresh take on Muddy Waters. The band sets up a spare, syncopated groove that punches behind a conversational vocal line. Sewell is essential, with just a taste of keyboard covering a rock-solid rhythm feel from drummer Herlin Riley, bassist Reginald Veal, and percussionist Lekan Babalola. As the track progresses, Batiste’s acoustic piano rises nicely and Wilson gets looser and more expressive. No one solos in a “jazz” way, yet the band takes over and then melts away in an effective studio fade.
“If It’s Magic” is even better. This was a spare ballad from Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder’s 1976 masterpiece. Wilson covers it with a gentle respect, accompanied only by piano and guitar. Without any flash, she occupies a great song, takes her time with it, and finds a sound for herself in the process—what seems almost like an “art song” approach to framing her voice. This track suggests that Wilson might fruitfully take a “straighter” approach with cover material in the future.
The intent of Silver Pony is to feature Wilson’s new band, I suppose, and they are very good. But the marvel of Wilson’s records remains the way she can use her singular vocal sound to reinvent a variety of styles and songs that do not necessarily constitute proper “jazz”. This latest recording, however, does more rehashing than reinventing. It suggests, of course, that Cassandra Wilson remains a vital jazz vocalist and a sterling live performer. But as the latest of the singer’s recording projects, it is inessential and merely fine.
Silver Pony is a trot around the ring, let’s hope, before she gallops again.