Cassandra Wilson is a big fan of Cassandra Wilson. When asked how she's able to appeal to both Kenny G listeners and the Ornette Coleman followers who despise Bill Clinton's favorite saxophonist, Wilson, a woman who's infused the jazz-vocal tradition with more life than any other young performer to emerge in the past decade, chuckles as she says, "I don't have an answer for that one. Who knows?" But when it's suggested that it may simply be a happy accident that she's been able to bridge this musical chasm, her speech instantly takes on a stern edge. "I don't believe in accidents," she declares. "Ever."
Wilson is not an instinctive artist--a singer who arrives at her musical destinations by happenstance. Rather, she's self-conscious, carefully considering each move before it's made. Like a jazz Meryl Streep, she has awesome technical skills that she wields with confidence and acumen derived from years of training. The results may not sound as natural and organic as some of the numbers delivered by Wilson's peers, but her material exudes a majesty and sensuality. Her tone is lush, weighty and insistent, whether she's drawing every ounce of energy from a prolonged note or climbing vocal registers with a subtlety and smoothness that's unexpected in one so young.
Better yet, Wilson is bold enough to take chances. This attribute--once commonplace in jazz, now quite rare--paid off in 1993 with Blue Light 'til Dawn, her debut for the Blue Note imprint. On the disc, Wilson risked incurring the wrath of doctrinaire jazz types by covering songs by such pop-music artists as Van Morrison ("Tupelo Honey"), Joni Mitchell ("Black Crow") and Ann Peebles ("I Can't Stand the Rain"). But while similar moves made by other jazz acts have led to them being branded as sellouts, Wilson has largely escaped such criticism; she's managed to broaden her base without alienating the jazz aficionados who've supported her for years. Characteristically, Wilson expected that this would be the case. "It doesn't surprise me," she notes, "because I think people like to hear a sort of turning around of perspectives. Especially, those who are truly followers of and listeners to jazz long for innovation. And that's what I give them."
Guitarist/bassist Herman B. Fowlkes--Wilson's father, who died while she was recording Blue Light--helped instill a love of jazz in his daughter; he played the music throughout her formative years, which she spent in Jackson, Mississippi. Wilson links her decision to cover "Come on in My Kitchen" and "Hellhound on My Trail," written by blues giant Robert Johnson, to her childhood. "I felt a kinship in his music for obvious reasons," she states. "We came from the same part of the country, so I was very familiar with the culture and the environment that gave birth to Robert Johnson. And his use of language, his vocabulary, is amazing. I have to admit that I was a little anxious about recording his songs in the beginning, because he is one of the greatest poets of our time, in my opinion. His songs really gave rise to all of the music that we enjoy today, so of course I approached them with respect and with humility. But I was able to get into them and enjoy them." Indeed, these Blue Light tracks work because Wilson recast them according to her own designs, instead of trying to mimic the inimitable Johnson style, as so many unimaginative blues players before her have done.
After college, Wilson married a New Jersey disc jockey from whom she is now separated and gave birth to a son, Jeris. Meanwhile, she became a regular figure in the New York City jazz avant-garde scene thanks to her membership in M-BASE Collective, a free-floating band of like-minded adventurers led by reed experts Steve Coleman and Greg Osby. The Collective's 1992 album Anatomy of a Groove (saddled with the pretentious subtitle Current Structural Developments in 21st Century Creative Black Music) is a fine piece highlighted by Wilson's "One Bright Morning" and "Non-Fiction," which she co-wrote with Osby.
During the same period, Wilson embarked on a solo career kicked off by 1985's Point of View and marked by highly praised efforts such as 1988's Blue Skies (featuring pianist Mulgrew Miller), 1990's She Who Weeps and 1991's After the Beginning Again. Stylistically, these discs covered plenty of territory--for instance, Blue Skies was dominated by standards, while 1989's Jumpworld sported occasional funk and hip-hop touches. Because most of these recordings were issued by a smallish company (JMT), they weren't widely heard by those outside the hardcore jazz pack. Thus, many reviews of Blue Light have brushed aside the eight albums that came before it in a single sentence. Wilson claims that she is not annoyed by this slight, but her words tell a different story.
"I don't really have an opinion about that at all," she insists. "Because certainly, there are enough people who have acknowledged that body of work--and it's documented that there was a Cassandra Wilson prior to Blue Light. But those albums were important while they were happening, and they still are important, because they detail a journey. And they sound good today. I think Blue Skies is a phenomenal piece, and Days Aweigh [from 1987]. In fact, all of them stand on their own as interesting studies of the development of an artist."
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Still, even Wilson acknowledges that Blue Light, which has sold more than 200,000 copies (an impressive total by jazz standards), has lifted her to a new level of popularity. She expects that her next CD, due in early 1996, will build upon that success. "I can't really tell you much about it, because it's not finished yet," she says, "but it shares a lot of elements with Blue Light. We're bringing in a few new people and doing some different things. So it will be an extension of that album. Some people may not be able to connect the dots, but to me, it's kind of obvious. Because I lived it."
Wilson does allow, however, that she plans to carefully consider every aspect of her next recording before committing it to plastic. "There's definitely a necessity for discipline in this music," she points out. "It's not the kind of music you come to and do, just like that. It requires a study of the past and a study of the masters. I believe in that very strongly. But I also believe that it is important to push the music forward and expand it and help it grow--to be a part of its growth. There are people who are part of one side of that continuum, and there are people who are part of the other side."
"And sometimes," she adds, with becoming immodesty, "there are people who are part of both. And I'm one of those people."
Herbie Hancock, with Cassandra Wilson. 6:30 p.m. Saturday, June 24, Snowmass Town Park Performance Tent, Snowmass Village, $20/$30/$40, 970-920-5770.