Cassandra Wilson – Beyond the blues
She ended up fashioning a moody, enigmatic lyric she says was informed by the Robert Rodriguez mariachi movies she had been watching, the noisy presence of the Mexicans working in the next studio (“Until they completed their work, we couldn’t record”), and thoughts of a vacation south of the border. “There’s some really crazy stuff in there,” said Wilson, who ended up orchestrating her own overdubbed vocals like horns. “My favorite part is the voices. This was the first time I’ve ever done anything like that.”
As the project continued, it gained guitarist Colin Linden, with whom she collaborated on an epic “Easy Rider” and the most compelling remake of “Red River Valley” since James Talley turned it into “Red River Memory” in the mid-’70s; and Keb Mo, who played on Willie Dixon’s “I Want To Be Loved”. Eschewing the high-profile pop covers she has been drawn to in the past (“The Weight”, “Last Train To Clarksville”, Sting’s “Fragile”, et al.), Wilson floats warmly through Jakob Dylan’s “Closer To You” and breathes intimacy into a pair of Burnett songs including “Strike A Match”.
When Burnett performed it several years ago, it scraped the bottom of despair. Re-equipped by Wilson with a 9/5 time signature and additional lyrics, it provides the necessary illumination. “I found it to be very dark,” she says, “but I specialize in that kind of stuff, so it didn’t frighten me to get inside it and dig deep into it.”
Wilson was going through difficult times when she recorded Thunderbird. “I just couldn’t get a grip on my life — which is great stuff for music,” she says, and the challenge of creating an album out of thin air was sometimes arduous. On her website, she says the project “almost killed her.” But with the support of, and an occasional push from, Burnett — “His is not any kind of Svengali kind of hand, it’s a light touch” — she thrived on the opportunity to stake out new stylistic ground. If anything, she sounds less burdened than ever before, and more relaxed with the process.
It was through Street that she met Burnett. Street was the producer and Burnett the executive producer of the all-star 2003 soundtrack for the TV series “Crossing Jordan”, to which Wilson contributed a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary”.
“I was intrigued by T Bone,” she says. “He was mysterious. I had heard his work. O Brother, Where Art Thou? had just come out and I Ioved it. I thought one day I would love to work with him, and so with this album, before the project began, I had a short list of people I wanted to work with. He was on it.”
As a fellow blues maven who was drawn to greats such as Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters during his formative years in Texas, Burnett was a good match for Wilson. They also clicked as fellow southerners. “We had a lot of sit-down time, which is the best way to do a recording,” she says. “He makes you feel like you don’t have time restraints even though you do. We talked in the way that southerners talk, in stories — very casually and, you know, you say a thing without saying it.
“It’s funny, though, it’s all foggy to me now; I don’t know if I ever said what I wanted to do with this album. Maybe I said I was interested in the new methodology, the whole sampling thing, maybe I didn’t. I only know I wanted to experiment with that stuff, and that’s what happened.”
Though Wilson’s recent albums have feasted on an eclectic approach (with the notable exception of Traveling Miles, her 1999 collection of freely interpreted Miles Davis songs), she has taken pains to vary the formula since her two albums with Street (he also produced her 1995 disc New Moon Daughter). She has used different producers (including herself), recorded in different places (her 2003 release Glamoured also was recorded in Mississippi, but in Jackson), and placed more of an emphasis on her own writing.
For all her stylistic wanderings, jazz remains her home base. “I started recording as a jazz artist,” she says. “That was my discipline, and it’s my discipline still. But inside of that, there are so many worlds. 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.
“I enjoy making people’s heads lean to the side. I don’t think there’s anything linear about me. I pride myself on illogic. Not that I have a problem with logic, but I don’t know if it has a place in music. Music exists on a different plane, and on that plane you really can’t apply the same kinds or ways of knowing, or ways of reasoning. There is a pattern to what I do, but it’s an unknowable one, and a mystery to me as well. It’s a circular pattern, but I don’t return to the same place. It’s almost like a cone or something, something geometric. I’m not good at math.”
As an artist some jazz fans have rejected for not being jazz enough — her approach to swing is so subtle and understated, it’s stealthy — and an artist some pop fans have rejected as too jazz, Wilson knows she is trapped in that no-woman’s land where no tag will ever fit. But she is long past the point of concerning herself with such distinctions.
“For me, roots music is the original music,” she says. “Everything else that comes after it is derived from it. I think American roots music is our original music, not jazz. Jazz is original music, of course, but it grows out of it. All the genres we have here in America are related. They require different levels of understanding or knowledge or discipline.”
A little solid research never hurts, either.
ND contributing editor Lloyd Sachs, a pop and jazz writer based in Chicago, wants Cassandra Wilson to know that even though he has never spent time in her home state, his affinity for it goes all the way back to his days of counting “One Mississippi, two Mississippi” as a determined touch footballer on the streets of Queens.