Cassandra Wilson Sings Miles

Sandy Carter

the musical tradition known as jazz has long enjoyed a reputation as an art of
change and freedom, the music seems increasingly mired in recycled history.
Check out any record store where jazz is sold and you’ll find CD shelf space
dominated by dead and gone greats. Airplay on mainstream jazz radio reflects the
same bias with classic recordings leaving few openings for new artists. The wide
influence of Wynton Marsalis inspired neo-traditionalists, university jazz
studies, corporate advertising, and the “fine arts” programming of esteemed
institutions like New York’s Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall further
underscore the value of the past over anything happening in the here and now. As
a result, any musician exploring new possibilities in the music must find
supporters that don’t worship at the altar of classic jazz.

Deeply immersed in the jazz
heritage, but also drawing from delta blues, folk, hip-hop, pop, and
avant-garde, jazz singer/writer Cassandra Wilson is one of those artists who has
been able to attract that kind of following. After several years of performing
strains of classic and avant jazz in New York City during the 1980s, Wilson
scored commercial and artistic breakthroughs with two albums, Blue Light
‘Til Dawn
(1993) and New Moon Daughter (1995), that pushed at the
boundaries of jazz by mixing her original tunes with cover versions of material
by Hank Williams, U2, Son House and Robert Johnson, Neil Young, and Billie
Holiday. Against spare, haunting atmospheres created by a tapestry of
non-traditional instrumentation (pedal steel guitar, violin, accordion, banjo,
acoustic and slide guitars, and light percussion), Wilson’s vocals yielded
tales of heartbreak, yearning, death, and oppression with riveting

If jazz was as free as it
advertises itself to be, then Wilson’s highly acclaimed albums would not have
caused such a stir. But in the realm of jazz singing, tradition has long
dictated repertoire (jazz and pop standards rooted mostly in pre-rock eras),
subject matter (heavy on romantic commentary, light on social concerns), and
instrumental backing (predominately big band and small combo settings). Working
within these parameters for nearly 100 years, vocal masters such as Louis
Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Dianah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, and
Joe Williams have defined the sound jazz listeners recognize as jazz singing.

No singer of jazz, of course,
can afford to ignore the legacies of the tradition’s giants. Like other well
schooled jazz vocalists, Cassandra Wilson reveals lessons of craft and style
derived from the classic sound. In the way she plays with melody, time, and
words, she recalls the brilliance of Betty Carter. Her dramatic flair for
storytelling echoes the genius of Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln. Unlike the
majority of jazz singers working today, however, Wilson believes in jazz as
music without rules. In pushing her expression beyond orthodoxy, she has
realized the kind of singular voice that can show jazz singing a way forward.

On her latest album, Traveling
(Blue Note), Wilson again demonstrates her willingness to take jazz
out on a limb. Paying homage to the legacy of Miles Davis, she mixes four of her
originals and lyrics for instrumentals with a program of tunes reflecting varied
and controversial periods of the trumpeter’s career. From Davis’s gorgeous,
poignant ballads of the 1950s, Wilson covers “Someday My Prince Will Come”
and “Blue In Green.” Drawing from his mesmerizing quintet of the 1960s, she
presents “ESP.” The groundbreaking Bitches Brew offers up “Miles
Runs The Voodoo Down.” From Davis’s much dissed work of the 1980s come
“Tutu” and the Cyndi Lauper hit “Time After Time.”
In press notes accompanying the
release of Traveling Miles, Wilson described how hearing Davis’s Sketches
Of Spain
at six years old started a musical journey. Since then she
explained, “Miles has always been there…it seemed natural for me to go back
inside of that music and that persona and figure out the kind of impact he’s
had on me musically, intellectually, creatively. Miles Davis is more than a man
for me now, he’s a metaphor of exploration, movement, creativity, being on the
cutting edge, all of those things.”

Accordingly, Wilson’s tribute to Davis is
inventive and personal. Rather than offer another stilted salute to his
legendary sound and official masterpieces, Wilson chooses to show how Davis’s
brooding intensity and adventurous imagination inspires her own musical vision.
With tense, understated phrasing and spare arrangements, Wilson makes her debt
to Miles obvious. But in translating Davis through her own musical history, she
risks losing (as Davis did with his experiments in rock and funk) the classic
jazz purists.

Born into a musical family in
Jackson, Mississippi, Wilson was writing songs and playing guitar at age 12.
Enraptured by the music of Joni Mitchell, she began performing folk music around
Mississippi and Arkansas during her late teenage years. Only after moving to New
Orleans in 1981 did she turn her musical ambitions toward jazz. A few years
later, she was in New York City performing as the featured vocalist with Steve
Coleman’s funk-free jazz group Five Elements, the M-Base Collective, New Air
and Bob Belden’s Manhattan Rhythm Club. Pulling together all these musical
journeys, Traveling Miles throws up a stiff challenge to old ears.

Music fans who carry less
stubborn allegiances, however, will likely find little resistance to Wilson’s
deeply moving eloquence. A host of sensitive musicians including alto
saxophonist Steve Coleman, violinist Regina Carter, bassist Lonnie Plaxico,
guitarists Marvin Sewell and Kevin Breit, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, and
percussionists Jeffrey Haynes and Mino Cinelu, heighten the bluesy,
introspective mood with striking lines and rhythm. With her evocative singing
and poetic lyrics, Wilson brings a beautiful clarity to the essential themes of
Davis’s music.

On the title track, she
remembers: “You can hear him humming on a country road/as the shadows grow to
night/swinging through seventh avenue/underneath the city lights/ringing out
with no fear or doubt/we can live our dreams right now/right now.”

On “Resurrection Blues
(Tutu),” a tune from Davis’s last decade, she adds layers of emotional depth
and meaning with the lines “the blues move through/resurrecting the old to
new/the songs slept inside us/until we called them out!”

Discussing her take on
“Resurrection Blues (Tutu),” Wilson explained, “I know Marcus Miller wrote
‘Tutu’ for Bishop Desmond Tutu, but I went in some other directions after
making a connection between the song and what the word ‘Tutu’ means in the
Yoruba religion, which is ‘cool.’ It’s a word the Yoruba used to describe
art and grace and gracefulness under pressure. For my version of ‘Tutu’ I
thought about that subtext of coolness traveling from Africa to America, and how
it’s still very much with us.”

As testimony to her profound
talent, Wilson sustains this sense of “cool” throughout Traveling Miles.
Like Davis, she knows the greatest power of music lies in its ability to kindle
ideas and possibilities beyond what is.