Live: Cassandra Wilson Paints A Stunning Picture At The Blue Note


Cassandra Wilson
The Blue Note
Thursday, June 28

Better than: Imagining the funk of 40,000 years…

Last year The Guardian put together a list of 50 key events in the history of jazz music, and Cassandra Wilson managed to nab slot No. 46 for “rediscovering the blues” on her Blue Note debut Blue Light ‘Til Dawn. That was just shy of 20 years ago, and even though I’m not sure that event would have made my top 50, hearing Wilson’s band last night offered persuasive evidence that the record was still the defining milestone in her career.

For starters, guitarist Brandon Ross, one of the shepherds of Wilson’s conversion from what one might call M-Base jazz-funk neophyte to Delta-bred Earth Mother, was onstage with her again, serving as one half of the twin-guitar rusticity that has pretty much defined her touring bands since that album’s release. Ross is the kind of improviser who can rock hard while avoiding the heroic inflections that have come to define rock. He was matched by Wilson’s frequent music director Marvin Sewell, whose mix of slides and spacey bent notes has the blues side covered and then some.

Wilson’s new disc, Another Country, is her first at a new label, and she’s clearly not try’na fix what ain’t broke. Instead, she fastidiously tweaks the sound around her umber contralto ever so slightly; it was somewhat surprising two years ago to hear the addition of pianist Jonathan Batiste on 2010’s Silver Pony, her final Blue Note disc. But last night’s sonic foil for the guitarists was perhaps more in line, though slyly so, with the rootsy needs of a queen of the millennial Delta to whom Norah Jones owes a big debt of gratitude for figuring out how to make jazz pop. Swiss harmonica phenom Grégoire Maret got nearly as much solo space as Wilson herself, and yet, he was channeling Stevie Wonder as much as, say, Junior Wells or Sonny Terry. (The set-opening instrumental, sans Wilson, was a version of “The Secret Life Of Plants.”)

The emphasis on chromaticism suits an ensemble that fuses styles so effortlessly. For the arrangement of “The Man I Love,” for instance, the band chugged along at a groovy, midtempo clip anchored by a liquid bass vamp and hand-drumming until the bridge, which slowed things down and spread them out into a virtual no-meter swing that Wilson’s voice swam through. There was a pocket and then, miraculously, no pocket, a faux-mystery that kinda mirrored Wilson’s subsequent joke to the audience about television: “Actually, they have real-life TV on TV now, right?” she queried. “But the question is, ‘Is it real?'”

That may be the formula for how Wilson’s arrangements create drama. Her voice fills up so much space that the band can begin every piece minimally; drummer John Davis needed little more than rimshots and a hi-hat to propel the music at one point, at another, it was simply hands beating on snare. Oddly enough, however, once these rhythm-scapes are in place Wilson’s jazz chops assert prominence. The guitars swell, the cymbals kick in, and you don’t hang on Wilson’s every word so much as wait, suspensefully, for her to exhale. Her voice is both husky and velvety, so its scat syllables, already formidable, take shapes that are astonishing in their seeming originality. It’s not unlike the rainbow palette she describes demotically on “Red Guitar,” the new album’s best original, where the lyrics find her bathing in “blue water,” lying on “white linen,” drinking “black coffee” and walking in “green gardens.” (She strapped on a rouge ax for emphasis.) And when the band dispenses with minimalism by infusing a blues stalwart like “St. James Infirmary” with a healthy dose of N’awlins cissy strut, somewhere inside the mix it’s possible to imagine hollers from every corner of the African diaspora, ancient, present and future.

Critical bias: I’m a pushover for women named “Cassandra,” which is my younger sister’s name.

Set list:
The Secret Life of Plants
Saddle Up My Pony
The Man I Love
The Chosen
Another Country
Red Guitar
St. James Infirmary