Cassandra Wilson live – one of a kind
Cassandra Wilson, Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, Saturday 15th June 2013
Cassandra Wilson’s concert reminded me that recordings can be like, say, photographs of a spectacular sunset – beautiful in their own right, flaws removed, and in permanent form. But they are not the real thing. Since Cassandra Wilson was last in Australia, almost a decade ago, I have played her CDs countless times, and I thought I knew what to expect at the Opera House. I’d forgotten just how good she is.
There is really nobody quite like her. More specifically, there is nobody quite like the Cassandra Wilson who emerged with the ground-breaking Blue Light Till Dawn in 1993. Well into her 30s and with a considerable ‘straight’ jazz discography behind her, Wilson found on that album the ongoing template for her sound and approach to music. It’s a unique mix of jazz, blues, folk, country and pop. It’s no criticism of her later work to suggest Blue Light and its follow-up, New Moon Daughter are defininitive, and no surprise that half of the set was drawn from these two recordings. (There’s a good argument that these albums paved the way for the stunning success of Blue Note label-mate Norah Jones’ Come Away with Me.)
The set list may have been influenced by the makeup of Wilson’s current band, three of whom played on those seminal albums. Indeed, Wilson implicitly credits guitarist Brandon Ross with assisting in the creation of her sound. His spare playing, particularly on the blues numbers, is a motif of Blue Light and New Moon Daughter, and he arranged about half of the first album.
Charlie Burnham played violin and mandolin, and his violin solos were among the most enjoyable of the night. His use of a wah wah pedal brought back pleasant memories of Jerry Goodman (The Flock/Mahavishnu Orchestra), although his loping, melodic solos put me in mind of Sonny Rollins as much as anyone.
Bassist Lonnie Plaxico’s history with Cassandra Wilson goes right back to their days with M-Base Collective, and he played on several of her JMT albums including her solo debut, Point of View, in 1986.
The other two members of the band were French percussionist Mino Cinelu and Swiss harmonica player Gregoire Maret.
Cinelu, whose bio includes an impressive list of jazz and pop names, from Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie to Sting and Elton John,used a hybrid drum and percussion kit, sometimes with one stick and one hand. He overplayed a little, and wasn’t helped by the variable acoustics of the Concert Hall, but he also provided one of most entertaining interludes of the night with his extended work on ‘Voodoo Reprise’.
The baby of the group at 38, the supremely talented Maret is Cassandra Wilson’s musical director. He got to shine early, with an instrumental version of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Secret Life of Plants’ serving as an introduction to the band before Wilson took the stage. Maret’s sound is light and sweet, much like Stevie Wonder’s, and he is compared, inevitably, with the Belgian harmonica great, Toots Thielemans.
All up, this band provided a near ideal platform for the set of songs. I thought Maret’s sound a little light for the extended blues of Death Letter, but it’s a minor quibble. This was a significantly better group than the piano dominant quartet Wilson played with on her previous visit.
Cassandra Wilson’s singing isn’t for everyone. She works within a narrow framework of tempo and volume, and the lack of fireworks is a turn-off for some. For me, it’s a large part of the appeal.
At heart she is a jazz singer. Every note is measured, her voice is an instrument, her diction perfect. Everything has a concert sheen. She is never a channel for raw emotion like a blues or gospel shouter, but that’s not to say she sings with detachment. It’s a slow burn, and she gets to the heart of every song. It’s almost ‘art music’ but, for me, it’s truly soulful, never precious or twee. There are precious few who can be so individual without crossing the line into eccentricity.
The highlight for me was U2’s ‘Love Is Blindness’, my favourite Cassandra Wilson song since it appeared on New Moon Daughter. It featured some of Plaxico’s best bass work, and perfect rhythm guitar from Brandon Ross. ‘Time After Time’ came close, and the blues numbers were standouts.
It wasn’t a perfect performance. The show started late, the mix varied, and Wilson’s patter was awkward at times. But the high points, and there were many, were as good as it gets.
Ultimately, it was a triumphant and truly memorable performance – a top class band of improvising musicians given plenty of space, and a truly unique singer in splendid form.
Grégoire Maret, harmonica, musical director; Brandon Ross, guitar; Charles Burnham, violin and mandolin; Lonnie Plaxico, bass; Mino Cinelu, percussion.
PHOTO: Cassandra Wilson in Sydney © Shane Rozario 2013, all rights reserved