Time Will Reveal

I had to listen to Cassandra Wilson's Belly of the Sunthree times before I was convinced it was a jazz album. Recorded in her native Mississippi, at the storied rural crossroads between blues legend and plantation nightmare known as Clarksdale, Belly of the Suninitially sounds like a meticulously nuanced folk-rock production. But that impression quickly fades as you notice how nimbly Wilson's athletic contralto changes tempo, intonation, timbre, and phrasing to improvise around intentionally amorphous arrangements of multiethnic pop. Tunes like "The Weight," "The Waters of March," and "Wichita Lineman" gently mutate under Wilson's direction away from their original identities as a pop-blues, a bossa nova, and a top-40 classic.

Wilson recently told The New York Timesthat she wanted to record her 14th album in Clarksdale for the feel, "the tempo . . .the measurement of feeling" of her deep Southern roots. Naturally such nostalgia has both bright and dark aspects for any child of the 1960s. Wilson herself has said that the album is an oblique tribute to the civil rights movement of her youth; a mnemonic protest album of sorts. But protest albums don't get any more subtle than this. From the sly phrase "Gimme a box of reparations" hidden in the wry center of the midtempo beat-poetry of "Justice" to the divine intervention suggested in the gospel sway of "You Got to Move," Wilson pulls her thematic punches just enough to make sure the ones that matter most hit home.

Full of hippie-eclectic percussion and acoustic-guitar textures, Belly of the Sunwould not have sounded out of place in 1971, but it's also the kind of project we might expect from India.Arie after another couple decades. Thank God there's a wide range of black women now in their thirties and forties making interesting music these days, for as Arie already knows, pop life isn't alwaysform over content, but form still has quite a grip on the star-making machinery. Yet at 46 Cassandra Wilson can sing anything from Joni Mitchell arias to Monkee teen anthems while wearing comfortable, dignified clothing and remain economically viable as a recording artist. Belly of the Sundoubles as a comforting reminder to all our twentysomething neo-divas that their options on longevity are not limited to the physically grueling Janet Jackson-Tina Turner cybervixen model.

Cherokee: so proud to live, so proud to die
photo: Tony Duran
Cherokee: so proud to live, so proud to die

Details

Cassandra Wilson
Belly of the Sun
Blue Note

Cherokee
Soul Parade
Arista

Jaguar Wright
Denials Delusions and Decisions
MCA

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Singer-songwriter Cherokee officially claims 27, but One World magazine pegs the artist (who recently escaped from RCA to Arista) at "30 or so"—a guess that shows more respect for dues paid than for corporate hedging and false gods of immaturity. Not that Arista—which was once famous for putting legendary queens of soul on the comeback trail and keeping them there regardless of age—should quail at supporting talent born before 1975. The label's ongoing success with rap and new-jack pioneer Angie Stone proves that with the right song and marketing, age ain't nothin' but a number. And trust me, Cherokee's second solo album, Soul Parade, has all the funk and charm and wit and savvy guest stars it needs to succeed at black radio and beyond. Cherokee's runway-model looks don't hurt, either, but if she keeps composing stuff this good she'll have plenty to fall back on when her sylph-like glamour fades.

Having survived a brief former career in the early '90s as half of the teenage alt-rock duo Auto & Cherokee, this half-black, half-Native New Yorker steps to her current collaborators with the natural inclinations of a Prince devotee steeped in the hip-hop flavors of her Brooklyn adolescence. By using Grammy-winning funk revivalist Andre 3000 of Outkast to hammer home its killer hook, her rock-inflected "Nectarine" leaves the door open for future divergence from cookie-cutter r&b trends. Equally offbeat is the seductive slow grind of "Baby I Swear," a single designed to implant Cherokee's "sound" (a distinctively grainy mewl that Prince would have turned into a falsetto) in the frontal lobe of every first-time listener. Though if trench warfare with the commercial competition requires it, she can also play the shrewd vocal chameleon.

Cherokee is unafraid to risk comparisons to Macy or Erykah, whose gritty textures she playfully incorporates into her smoky soprano on tunes like "A Woman Knows"—which she co-wrote with Def Soul wunderkind Musiq Soulchild—and "Lips." But she has largely turned away from the darker, more inaccessibly idiosyncratic content which made 1999's I Love You . . . Me. She knows that until she finds and secures an audience loyal enough to let herdevelop a discography 14 albums deep, she is safer running with the fraternal pack of her alt-soul contemporaries than asserting full musical independence. And whether that means composing an atmospheric ballad with Jill Scott or pulling Scratch from the Roots into the studio, Cherokee is down with the posse that gives her quirky individuality a context as well as an easy reference point for the MTV masses.

As a similar beneficiary of collective bootstrapping, Jaguar Wright can credit her album debut, Denials Delusions and Decisions, to a lengthy stint working Philly and New York nightclubs on the Roots- and Jazzyfatnasty-sponsored "Black Lily" circuit—showcases launched as a brilliant solution to the chronic lack of East Coast venues willing to promote unsigned r&b contenders, and through which both India.Arie and Jill Scott also gained early exposure. Live, Jaguar does her best to represent as a 21st-century Millie Jackson, with a little bit of Moms Mabley rawness on top. Only a black grassroots scene like "Black Lily" would even have recognized that the world neededa post-hip-hop Millie Jackson. So naturally the Roots took Wright on as a protégé, and inadvertently produced her first hit as the signature cut from the feature film The Best Man.

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