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The Boston Phoenix On Her Own

Cassandra Wilson walks Miles in her shoes

By Jon Garelick

APRIL 5, 1999:  In the jazz world, where commercial success is measured on an indie-rock scale, 43-year-old Cassandra Wilson is an anomaly. Her last two albums, Blue Light 'til Dawn and New Moon Daughter, were, by jazz standards, huge commercial successes, with total sales over a million. Her new Traveling Miles (Blue Note) has been one of the most eagerly awaited jazz releases of the season, and it's getting a multi-format radio push (all three albums are on Blue Note).

Until Blue Light 'til Dawn, there was no reason to think that this particular talented, uncompromising jazz artist would chart such a stratospheric career path. As a kid in Jackson, Mississippi, she pursued folk, but blues, of course, was everywhere. Her father was the the blues guitarist and bassist Herman Fowlkes. When I ask her who she followed in blues, she laughs over the phone from her New York home, then answers, "One doesn't follow the blues in Mississippi -- one is the blues, one be the blues." And then she adds about the Jackson scene, "The blues are never far away. It's always implied, in every tune. It's just part of the fabric of life there. So much so that someone like Joni Mitchell becomes exotic."

It was, in fact, Joni Mitchell she followed as a teenage folkie. Later, working in New Orleans, she began a shift to jazz. When she got to Brooklyn in the early '80s, she hooked up with some of the most progressive musicians in the neighborhood -- Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, and their M-Base Collective, as well as Henry Threadgill, Mulgrew Miller, and others.

Her albums from that period and into the early '80s show a mix of influences. Her dark vocal timbre and steel-in-velvet attack have earned her comparisons to Nina Simone. But she had also picked up the hard-scatting jazz tradition of Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter. She recorded seven albums under her own name between 1985 and 1991 (all on the JMT label), often working with M-Base stalwarts like Coleman and guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly, singing a mix of standards and originals that veered from Vaughan/Carter boppishness to more avant, angular explorations. Bourelly and Coleman, as well as the presence of legendary left-leaning trombonist Grachun Moncur III, gave much of the work an aggressive edge, though it was familiar enough. On some tunes, the edge was decidedly blues rock.

Then in 1993 the sky opened. Wilson hooked up with the producer Craig Street and, just as important, the guitarist and arranger Brandon Ross for her Blue Note debut. Her repertoire and ensemble approach flowered. Blue Light 'til Dawn began with a standard, Don Raye & Gene DePaul's "You Don't Know What Love Is," but on it Wilson was accompanied only by Ross's acoustic steel-string guitar and a violin. The effect was a cross between classic pop and new-age folk with a touch of the Hot Club of France. From there the album went on to Robert Johnson ("Come On in My Kitchen," "Hellhound on My Trail"), Van Morrison ("Tupelo Honey"), an Ann Peebles soul stirrer ("I Can't Stand the Rain"), back to Joni Mitchell ("Black Crow"), and then a few of Wilson's typically impressionistic originals. Throughout, the instrumentation remained unpredictable. There was no standard jazz rhythm section (piano/bass/drums) to be found. But neither did Johnson and Morrison necessarily sound like themselves. "Come On in My Kitchen" got a clattering, lurching accompaniment from bass and drums, delicate plucking from Ross, and café accordion. The R&B bump of "Tupelo Honey" was slowed down and jazzy.

Wilson followed up Blue Light 'til Dawn with New Moon Daughter in 1995, and if anything that was even more daring in repertoire. It wasn't just that the tunes wouldn't, by any conventional standard, fit on a jazz album, it's that they wouldn't ordinarily fit with one another. Working again with Street and Ross, she mixed her handful of originals with U2, Son House, Hoagy Carmichael, Hank Williams, and Neil Young. And it worked. Wilson and company gave each tune its distinct character and arrangement and yet brought them all together in a kind of sui generis style that you could call postmodern cabaret, chamber jazz, or whatever you liked, but it was unified by Wilson's light, steel-and-velvet touch, her floating time, her enveloping contralto, and the mood of ensemble intimacy. Here were jazz vocals in a different setting, with nary a scat to be heard. It was pop music with the hooks removed. In other words, it lacked obvious commercial potential. And yet, New Moon Daughter sold even better than Blue Light 'til Dawn.

Now Wilson's returned with Traveling Miles, a Miles Davis album that again makes none of the predictable moves. Producing and arranging on her own this time, she adapts Miles's music freely, making this album more subtle in conception than the standard "tribute." She's written four new pieces out of the album's 12 (one of them with guitarist Marvin Sewell) and lyrics for other Davis tunes, though it's the voice and arrangements rather than the words that are likely to grab you (Wilson here favors gauzy poetic lyrics of the "life is but a dream" variety). She also sings some of Davis's own "cover" tunes, from "Some Day My Prince Will Come" to Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time."

Although the music draws from a broad range of his career, from early acoustic ("Blue in Green") to late electric ("Tutu"), Wilson sticks with lots of acoustic-guitar sounds and very little piano. She never settles for the generic. At times, she's more Joni Mitchell than she's ever been (on record at least). The original "Right Here, Right Now" has a jangly folk-pop glow. "When the Sun Goes Down" is almost classic folk rock, right down to its electric guitar solo, but it also has a pulsating acoustic jazz bass (throughout the album, Lonnie Plaxico and former Davis sideman Dave Holland bring the kind of rhythmic and harmonic edge to the material that Richard Davis brought to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks). Steve Coleman's alto is back, but it's used sparingly. Elsewhere, vibes, marimba, and fiddle vary the textures, and "Seven Steps" (based on the Miles Davis/Victor Feldman "Seven Steps to Heaven") is a straightahead jazz romp with a twist. Wayne Shorter's "E.S.P." gets a Middle Eastern violin intro to a surprising samba-like treatment. And on the reprise of the funk-bass-driven "Run the Voodoo Down" that opens the album, Afropop star Angelique Kidjo joins Wilson for some tricky harmonies and a verse in Yoruba.

Traveling Miles originated in 1997 as a commission from Jazz at Lincoln Center. Wilson tells me how she found her way into Davis's tunes, and about the affinity she feels for him (they never met). She recalls some of the stories Holland told her about working with Davis. "He said once Chick Corea was complaining about playing electric keyboard and went to Miles and asked, 'How can I make this keyboard sound like a piano?' And Miles said, 'Stop playing it.' " She laughs. "That's like the story about Trane going to Miles and asking, something like, 'How can you sculpt your solos, how are you able to deliver everything in such a short period of time,' and Miles says, 'I take the horn out of my mouth.' "

Wilson, not one to mow down an audience with pyrotechnics, explains, "I do believe in economy, and space . . . I think there's room for both kinds of approaches to improvisation, and Miles let us know that: it's okay to leave space, you don't have to articulate every change that comes through. You can imply a lot, and in the space, in the silences, there's volumes."

I ask Wilson what attracted her to particular Davis-associated pieces -- ones like Shorter's "E.S.P.", with its odd intervals, that seem particularly resistant to vocal interpretation, not to mention lyrics. "It's hard to describe what draws you to a piece of music. For this one it was just the incredible melody and the way it kind of turns inside out in a most unexpected place. There is a change in it that is so unexpected and comes from out of nowhere, it's wonderful. And that's what drew me to it initially. I just keep humming the melody over and over again, bits and pieces of it. I would elongate it at times, stretch it out and see what happens if, instead of coming in on the downbeat, I just lay out for a minute and phrase it the way a singer would." Working the tune out on guitar added another element. "In doing that I began to feel a pattern, a movement that's more like a Brazilian thing. And, of course, when I took it into the studio, the guys kind of went crazy with it -- they took it to the East!"

Explaining her work on "Seven Steps," Wilson gets at the emotional connection she feels with Davis. When I ask what grabbed her about it, she says immediately, "The title . . . I've always been fascinated by the title of that tune and what Miles meant by it, why Miles named it that, what's implied in it. Is it just a reference to what's happening technically, inside the music, or is it perhaps a mystery? Is there something else inside of it that needs to be explored? When you hear it done, it's always done the same way. And it's really hard to drag instrumentalists away from that version.

"So in order to do that, the first thing I wanted to do was put the rhythm down. [She hums the repeated bass notes of the opening.] Let's put that in seven and see what happens with it, when the accents are laying in a different place. And once you do that, that sets it up for something else to happen; you're going to swing at some point, yeah, but is your swing going to be the same? . . . I still have a hell of a time manipulating those changes, which I don't do on the record. I just kind of lay back and act as a narrator of sorts. When we perform it live, I do try a chorus or two -- and it's hell!" She laughs again. "But that's my challenge, that's a big thing for me: being able to deliver the lyric and improvise on those changes."

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