When she first emerged as a promising and unusual young jazz singer, Cassandra Wilson was an eccentric, an acquired taste. She sang in a cameo role with the out-jazz group New Air, the protégé of composer and reed player Henry Threadgill. Then she appeared on recordings by Steve Coleman, the mastermind of the complexly daring M-BASE collective. Her early records on JMT were in this mode: slightly atonal, deeply improvisational, certainly incomplete in conception. But: oooh, so promising.
With Blue Skies (JMT, 1988), she seemed to turn a corner by covering standards but treating them like putty. Her interpretations were fresh and pliant, even as she worked in front of a traditional piano trio. Wilson’s daring instincts were thrown into fresh relief against the known material, and her wonderful sound seemed not to be so lost when it had great melodies to inhabit.
It was no great surprise, then, that Wilson would also gravitate toward more contemporary popular songs with great melodies. When she started recording for Blue Note in 1993 (Blue Light ‘Til Dawn), her voice was set against acoustic guitars in a setting that was more blues/folk than “jazz”. And so Wilson started taking swings at Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow” or Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey”. The magic was nearly immediate. Nearly every recording since then has contained rock era gems: Sting’s “Fragile”, Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon”, the Band’s “The Weight”.
Now Blue Note has packaged most of these Cassandra Wilson pop covers in a single disc, Closer to You: The Pop Side. Why not? These tracks typically revealed themselves as the highlights of their original albums, the chocolate chips in Cassandra Wilson’s Toll House canon. For example, her tribute to Miles Davis, Traveling Miles, was frequently brilliant and unusually riveting, but even here it was impossible not to punch “replay” after hearing her version of the Cyndi Lauper track, “Time After Time”. This is a golden opportunity to package these gooey treats in one glorious place.
Or, is it possible for one cookie to contain too many chocolate chips?
The first time I heard Wilson’s New Moon Daughter version of U2’s “Love is Blindness”, I was utterly knocked out. Her acoustic guitars conjure direct atmosphere, and her rich contralto makes Bono’s singing seem whiny and thin. Wilson seems to be investing in her interpretation in a deeper way than the original suggested. Brilliant! I felt the same way after I first heard Wilson slow down “Time After Time”, loving the way Wilson gives it more space and time to breathe as a song.
Yet the two songs, back to back, seem less fresh than they seem, well, similarly sluggish. And this is the dilemma with Closer to You. It is a beautiful drag. It is logy. It needs a Pepsi or two.
Not that Wilson approaches all these tunes in the same way. Sting’s “Fragile” gets a hip bossa treatment, and it burbles right along. Jakob Dylan’s “Closer to You is turned by a slinky (but quiet) hip-hop groove. And Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” is directly funky, with an acoustic bass line that slithers with groove. But even these tunes are largely colored by the gauzy beauty of Wilson’s bands—the feathery acoustic guitars, the hand percussion, the washes of transparent synthesizer.
Many other songs are less varied. “The Weight”, “Tupelo Honey”, and “Wichita Lineman” are given the same basic, take-your-time treatment. The guitars are spacious, and the spare backbeat gently nudges along the drag of the vocal. “Harvest Moon” and “I Can’t Stand the Rain” are more obtuse in their approach, but they have the same basic ingredients. Each song is wonderful-wonderful, but each worked more effectively in the context of its original recording, standing out for its familiarity and benefiting from the instrumentation that was serving Wilson, in different ways, on the other material.
But, this complaint aside, these remain brilliant covers, and they are brilliant because they allow Cassandra Wilson the space and time to rethink the lyrics as she sings them, all within a musical setting that places Wilson’s generous voice within an ideal and crystalline frame. Having them in one place may yet serve to bring Wilson’s voice to a wider public, one that hungers for the familiar, even it doled out in fairly languorous doses.
I hope that’s the case. O Music Gods, my prayer to you: Let Closer To You: The Pop Side become Cassandra Wilson’s runaway hit, even though it’s not my favorite collection of her work. Let it become ubiquitous in 2009 dorm rooms or cafes, even supermarkets. Let Wilson’s dark, luxurious voice become a cultural touchstone, and let it become so familiar that I actually become a little bit sick of it. She is such a graceful and focused talent, and what she does with rock era songs is simple: she makes them deeper and more powerful and more pliant to the jazz touch. Let it, slow but filigreed, sell a million.