When the word got out late last year that Cassandra Wilson was recording a blues album in an abandoned train station in Clarksdale, Mississippi, expectations were naturally high. Would Wilson find a way to redefine the blues and make them accessible to a new 21st century audience for whom the Mississippi Delta and its musical melting pot were so far away as to seem ancient history? Would she reinterpret standard blues songs or write her own? Would she capture the essence of the blues experience as she did the essence of Miles Davis on her Traveling Miles album?
The answers to these questions are on hold, at least temporarily, because while Wilson did go to Mississippi and did record some blues, the resulting album, Belly of the Sun, seems not to be the album Wilson started out making. But that may not matter at all; Belly of the Sun somehow captures both the heart of the Mississippi Delta and the heart of America right here, right now (to borrow a phrase from Ms. Wilson herself). Already the inevitable question has been raised of whether or not this is truly a jazz album, to which I say that Wilson is one of the finest singers in the jazz tradition we have today and her mixing of idioms (pop/rock, blues, jazz, Latin) is sign of a talent that is more, rather than less than, the sum of these parts. Like Billie Holiday and Ethel Waters before her, Wilson's talents are simply too abundant to be confined to a specific genre. I believe that the spirit of this album is clearly in the roots of American music, and when one digs down deeply enough into those roots, who can say where one type of music ends and another ends?
The opening track, a seductive version of Robbie Robertson's "The Weight" uses bongos and bluesy acoustic and steel guitars to convey a sense of heat-drenched weariness, as does Wilson's delivery of the song's highly mystic lyrics. In many ways Wilson's version of "The Weight" conveys the load we carry as a country, both historically in the area of race relations and now, more recently, in the wake of international terrorism. The sense of triumph that the blues often conveys is here, and by the time Wilson launches into the chorus for the last time, we feel that a metaphorical load has, in fact, been lifted. "Justice", an original composition, is one of only two songs that Wilson knew would be on the album when she headed down to Mississippi, and it addresses rather directly the highly current topic of reparations for slavery. "I'll take that box of reparations / No, not the little one / I want the big one that matches my scars / It's such a pretty thing / Something I've needed since I came here from afar," she sings. The poetry is very eloquent, though I suspect Wilson sees this as something of a personal "Strange Fruit" (a song she managed to cover despite its almost exclusive association with Billie Holiday); it's not nearly that strong and neither is its subject. Still, it is so refreshing and bracing to hear a jazz singer actually sing about something current, important, and politically charged that you have to applaud Cassandra's chutzpah.
To be fair, by the time she settled down to actually record, the idea of the blues album was already morphing into something else: "Mississippi is an almost magical place for music. In addition to the legacy that's there, great musicians are everywhere. In the smallest town you can find cats that are amazing players. Not just the blues, there are also funk players, soul singers, of course gospel singers, and like my father, some serious jazz musicians. For the most part the world outside of Mississippi has never heard of them." One amazing musician Wilson found was 80 year-old local blues pianist Boogaloo Ames who accompanies the singer on "Darkness on the Delta" and "Rock Me Baby". The fact is that you can hear in Ames' playing a style and feeling for the blues (as well as earlier piano styles) that you simply wouldn't get from today's finest jazz and studio performers. These two performances form the blues backbone of Belly of the Sun, allowing Wilson to extend into Brazilian bossa, soul, and popular music without sacrificing the album's conceptual integrity.
Wilson has been performing Gilberto's "Waters of March" live for a while, and the song is a personal favorite. One problem many singers have with a song like this (indeed with many Brazilian songs by Gilberto and Jobim) is that they have trouble fitting the words in while still remaining sufficiently relaxed in their phrasing. Furthermore, the words themselves carry meaning beyond their actual meaning -- it is often the sound of the words that is every bit as important: "A fish / A flash / A silvery glow" conveys not only the visual image, but its motion as well. Wilson is kind of singer who can be trusted to convey the full depth of such deceptively simple lyrics, and that as much as anything defines her as a jazz singer in my book. The song segues into a rendition of the traditional blues "You Gotta Move", recorded in an abandoned boxcar because a wedding party had pre-booked the old train station that Wilson & Co. were recording in. The South American influence is continued in a version of James Taylor's "Only a Dream in Rio".
If there's a dud on the album, it is, for me, Wilson's performance of "Wichita Lineman", another song she's been doing live. The song just doesn't have the melodic strength to be performed as slowly and deliberately as the singer does here. For a version that not only transcends the song's pop origins but outshines Wilson's by far, see the Meters' cover with Art Neville on vocals. Wilson gets right back on the horse, though, with a powerful reading of Bob Dylan's allegorical "Shelter From the Storm" that builds in rhythmic intensity. While the lyrical poetry of "Shelter From the Storm" and "The Weight" are miles away from the blues in complexity they do play with allegory and myth the same way, and it's quite interesting that Wilson recognizes this -- it's hard to imagine two American (Canadian in Robertson's case) popular songwriters whose music is more informed and shaped by a reverence for the blues.
With her own "Cooter Brown" and the folksy "Little Lion" Wilson takes us into the Carribean and the African continent before getting down to some soulful grooves with "Show Me a Love" and "Road So Clear". The panorama is completed with Wilson's gorgeous composition "Just Another Parade" featuring young soul singer India.Arie, who (wisely) mentioned that Cassandra is an influence. It's heartening to think that younger singers are paying attention to Wilson, not merely because she has managed to be fairly commercially successful while remaining highly artistic, but because she represents all that a singer should be -- interesting, gutsy, engaged with the songs she is singing, and interested enough in how it all works to put her own ideas and compositions out there. If, despite all that, all you can worry about is whether Belly of the Sun is a "real" jazz album or not, it's your problem, not Cassandra's. The table has been set and the meal is a sumptuous one. Whether you partake or not is your gain or loss.