Cassandra Wilson: Still a "Jazz" Singer As She Roams Far Afield
Cassandra Wilson, the unconventional singer, changes it up with Another Country and talks about what it means to be a “jazz” musician finding a distinctive voice.
There isn't a more unique voice in American music than the one belonging to Cassandra Wilson. Her dusky contralto can move, within a phase from meditative to angry, romantic to jazzily precise, blues-drenched to delicate. No matter the mood that drenches her delivery, Wilson is immediately herself -- perhaps the most distinctive and expressive singer of the last two decades.
Wilson's new record, Another Country, is another exemplar of these two critical characteristics. From the start and throughout, Another Country is plainly Cassandra Wilson, yet it also represents a surprising variety and sense of change. Here is that distinctive voice, that one-of-a-kind sound, yet it is up to new and varied tricks.
Talking about the new recording, her first in almost 20 years away from Blue Note Records, Wilson agreed that she become more herself the more different directions she goes in. "Yes! I feel more confident because I've placed myself in so many different contexts. That fuels your belief in yourself. It helps you dig deep."
For example, Wilson taking on an aria? Yes. Yet she still sounds utterly like Cassandra Wilson.
A Partnership, Again
In the past, Wilson has frequently teamed up with other strong voices to help push her harder into deeper territory. On Another Country she chose to work with jazz guitarist Fabrizio Sotti, recording in his neck of the woods -- Florence, Italy.
Early in her career, Wilson worked with Henry Threadgill's Ensemble New Air, a strong collaborator to say the least. Around the same time, she was working a recording extensively with musicians from Steve Coleman's "M-BASE Collective," where she was often somewhat hidden in an ensemble of strong personalities and surging electric grooves. "That," Wilson notes, "was really, really difficult. It was a great experience but very challenging. I learned a lot. I had to keep up with them. I had to work and study. I had to challenge myself."
Wilson started to sound like the artist we recognize today in 1993 with her first Blue Note disc, Blue Light Till Dawn. "That was the beginning of me finding a sound that suited my voice. And it helped me to develop a singular voice." That disc was also a triumph of collaboration with producer Craig Street. "I lucked out when I signed with Bruce Lundvall on Blue Note. He was so knowledgeable and sensed that I was tapping into something. And he allowed me to do it. He wasn't afraid and didn't feel I had to follow a particular formula to sell records. He wanted me to express myself. He was really happy with the direction that Craig Street and I were going with the album. He gave me that support that an artist needs to pursue her own voice."
And on and on. Just as Wilson was becoming clearly herself she signed on to record on a tour with Wynton Marsalis's brilliant extended work Blood on the Fields, she challenged herself by recording a tribute record to the biggest personality in modern jazz in Traveling Miles, and as recently as 2008 she brought a major soloist in Jason Moran into her Loverly, a recording mostly of jazz standards.
Sotti and Wilson, Exploring Everything
Fabrizio Sotti had collaborated with Wilson before on her disc Glamoured, but he is equally well-known as a highly eclectic player and producer with a track record in pop and hip-hop as well as jazz. What he brings to Another Country is a sense of genuine collaboration that spans multiple cultures, not just the Italian touch provided by "O Solo Mio".
"It was great to be able to collaborate with him," Wilson says of Sotti. "It's the first time I've had that kind of collaboration where we wrote the songs together and talked about what they meant, about the structure. For me it's important to grow, to expand, and this collaboration provided another opportunity."
The range of this collaboration is remarkable. "Olomuroro", for example, appears to wrangle a children's choir to place a set of Japanese lyrics (later sung in English) over a groove built from Sotti's acoustic guitar, accordion, and hand drums. Wilson weaves her voice around the rest of the song in ways subtle and slinky. Wilson's voice is a near-whisper on "Almost Twelve", which uses the same instrumentation but sets it around a lively Brazilian groove that jumps on the strength of Sotti's strumming. And "Passion" uses a slinky bass figure in combination with flamenco-styled guitar sound to set up a sexy minor melody. The opener, "Red Guitar", lets Sotti play some electric guitar with jazz flash even as the rhythm section stay in a cool acoustic mode.
More than any other Wilson project since her M-BASE days, Another Country moves the singer into the shadows at times. "Deep Blue" features Sotti alone on acoustic guitar, working a very effective piece of moody impressionism. "Letting You Go" is for two guitars, with Sotti playing a lead line with a gorgeous muted tone. Both of these pieces are intimate, suggesting that Sotti is finding his voice in this context as much as Wilson is.
Different Styles But One Sound
As diverse as the bags are on Another Country, Wilson and Sotti smartly keep the band small and consistent from tune to tune, making sure that the album's sound is a through-line amidst the variations. Bassist Nicola Sorato and Accordion player Julien Labro work the tunes with tasteful care, and Mino Cinelu and Lekan Babalola add percussion groove on many tunes. The title track is one of the effective at letting the groove take over in a blend of styles rather than a single pose. Even on "O Solo Mio", which seems perhaps like a stunt, the sound of the group works to turn things into a kind of folk song.
Wilson consciously works with her bands as a collaborator rather than just a singer out front. "As you experiment and associate with like-minded musicians, that when the process is in full swing -- you're well on your way to developing your own unique approach."
Ultimately, Wilson sees herself as a musician rather than some kind of singer/diva. "You have to remember, I've been a musician since I was five years old. The most important thing to me has been the music. When you get together with great musicians, you don't separate yourself from them. You join them in the quest to make great music. That is the dynamic you need in order to best manifest this music that we call jazz."
Still a Jazz Singer?
This far down the road of developing her voice, it's clear that Wilson doesn't feel bound by any one style. She has worked through pop songs and blues, folk material and American standards -- and plenty of traditions from outside the US. But what kind of musician typically feels the freedom to do all of that while still imprinting everything with a very clear, individual sound? That remains the realm of jazz.
"Jazz" is still somewhat Wilson's identity, even though her art goes beyond the clichés of the style. Still, there is reverence in Wilson's voice when she uses the word. "The word is just a word. It's not my favorite word to use to describe improvisational music that grows from the blues," she says.
But clearly Cassandra Wilson appreciates the importance of the jazz history and legacy that she comes from. "It's a discipline, an approach, a way of life, of looking at things -- much more than a genre. You have people who may understand the mechanics of it, but do they understand the mission of it?
"If you look at the history of the music, how it grows out of an African-American experience, then the music is about freedom. And that is the emotion you need to have to express the music."