Cassandra Wilson – Beyond the blues
“You can’t continue to do the same songbook over and over. You have to innovate. I always felt that’s what I wanted to do — that and create a signature style or sound no one can say is derivative.”
Cassandra Wilson laughs, her lustrous dark tones unable not to make music. I had asked what it was like recording her 2002 album Belly Of The Sun in Mississippi — in Clarksdale, 150 miles to the north of her hometown of Jackson. “Have you ever been to Mississippi in the summer?” she replies, nudgingly, rightly suspecting the answer was no.
In confessing my ignorance about the Magnolia State — which I know mainly from Muddy Waters, the Manning family of quarterbacks, and “Tupelo Honey” — I played right into Wilson’s hands. Since moving back to Jackson last year to take care of her ill mother, she has been doing a lot of research into the origins of the blues. The more she has read, she says, the more geographic illiteracy she has encountered.
“I find it interesting when I’m reading about what writers say about the music and where it came from, they don’t really know Mississippi,” she says. “There are so many references to blues being in the bayou and the Mississippi Delta being the Mississippi River Delta.” (The former, my own independent research revealed, is in northwest part of the state and a delta in name only; the latter is where the mighty river enters the Gulf of Mexico.)
I could only be thankful that I haven’t often written about the blues. But if Wilson’s place of birth is a mystery to me, there remain mysteries about it to her, too, especially as pertaining to the blues. You wouldn’t think, thirteen years after she chilled bones with those ghostly Robert Johnson tunes on her breakthrough album, Blue Light ‘Til Dawn — and a few months after laying down a shudderingly powerful version of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Easy Rider” with producer T Bone Burnett for her new album Thunderbird (released in April on Blue Note) — she would be in need of any more insight into the blues. At 50, she is a master of the form, uncovering shadowy depths in it with her sensual, rippling vocals — call her a child of the river — that are beyond most traditional shouters.
But she is more consumed than ever by questions about the blues and its relationship with jazz, the genre under which she is most often filed. “We assume that jazz was born in New Orleans,” she says, “but my question is, if that is so and the blues were the building blocks of jazz, then where did the blues come from? The primary storyline is that it is rooted in slavery, but so much is missing from that.
“I was speaking to [jazz and blues veteran] Olu Dara, who is from Natchez [in southwest Mississippi], and he said a lot of Native American music is embedded in the blues, the sound of it. People assume the blues scales are related to the west African rendering. He said he believes the scales really come from Native Americans because there was such a close relationship between the captives and them. There was this intermingling, and there was music that resulted from this relationship. He said the blues was really black folks putting lyrics to those Indian melodies.”
That certainly would be one way of explaining why Wilson, who has Choctaw blood in her, has such a blazing affinity for the blues — and did long before critics pronounced her handling of Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen” and “Hellhound On My Trail” on Blue Light a striking departure for her. She may have emerged on the Brooklyn scene as a jazz singer, working with cutting-edge saxophonist-composers Henry Threadgill and Steve Coleman and cutting a standards album. But, she says, “I was returning to something people who were aware of my biography knew I had been involved with before.”
Released by Blue Note in 1993, Blue Light occupies a special place in recent recorded history. In melting the boundaries between jazz and other genres, it essentially established a new genre, forcing people to rethink what a jazz singer is and can be. Dozens of vocalists have followed in or gravitated to the path cut by Wilson, as guided by her boldly innovative producer Craig Street, who made a splash of his own with his unusual instrumental textures. It’s difficult to conceive of Norah Jones enjoying the giant success she has — on the Blue Note label — without Wilson’s template.
If Street was looking to stretch the parameters of jazz by encouraging Wilson to interpret songs by personal, and to that point private, favorites of hers such as Joni Mitchell, the Monkees and Hank Williams, Burnett was looking to reverse the process and make what he called “an honest to goodness, real life jazz record” with her. To say the least, though Burnett considers her today’s premier jazz singer, on a par with Ella Fitzgerald, his idea of a jazz record is quite different from, say, what Norman Granz had in mind when he recorded Fitzgerald. After having Wilson record the jazz standard “The Folks Who Live On The Hill”, he scotched it as too jazz-standardy.
But in freeing her from her normal script, giving her the freedom “to just come up with tunes,” he helped imbue Thunderbird with a jazz sensibility even when overhauling her sound with an up-to-the-minute pop approach that transports her to a new place via a roomier, densely atmospheric sound.
When Wilson and Burnett entered a Los Angeles studio with a cast of T Bone regulars including guitarist Marc Ribot, keyboardist Keefus Ciancia and drummer Jim Keltner, they had no material to speak of. But having worked together for a long time, Burnett said, the players “had a lot of trust that we could go in and do it.”
Starting out with nothing more than a sample of the Wild Tchoupitoulas’ “Hey Pocky A-Way” programmed by Mike Elizondo (producer, and some would say savior, of Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine), they crafted, riff by riff, the strange, seductive “Go To Mexico”. (Reginald Veal, a Wilson regular, also weighed in with his heavy acoustic bass.) Isolated in a booth with her acoustic guitar, Wilson started singing and playing — “I don’t know what, I have to look back to remember.”