I’ve always had a bit of a problem with Cassandra Wilson. She possesses a unique and compelling voice, an alluring and smoky contralto, and she’s easily the coolest jazz singer out there, by a mile. So what’s the problem? Well, for years Wilson has been determinedly following her own path, exploring different musical avenues that never made for especially fulfilling listening experiences, at least for me. She had a bothersome habit of adopting willfully odd syncopation, pulling lyrics hither and yon, stretching time, without much reason that I could fathom. There was much to admire, but not much to love. It was frustrating; I would hear that gorgeous voice and wish she would tackle some material that was worthy of it.
Well, Loverly is the album I’ve been waiting for. Eleven standards and one original, all played relatively straight, without gimmickry but with great big lashings of heart and spirit and wit. As usual, Wilson plays with meter as she sings, but always in service to the song. And it’s wonderful. Her band is fabulous, especially pianist Jason Moran, whom I prefer as a sideman than as leader (he was astonishing on Charles Lloyd’s Rabo de Nube last year.) African percussionist Lekan Babalola adds texture and additional rhythmic intensity to these songs, aided and abetted by drummer Herlin Riley. Marvin Sewell’s guitar adds just the right amount of bite. Lonnie Plaxico’s bass is fat, full and bang on the money. The vibe is joyous and relaxed throughout.
Highlights include a funky and sinister St James Infirmary, and a beautiful duo performance of Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most (never an easy song for singers.) Familiar though the songs are, they all sound fresh and alive and new. When you hear Til There Was You, you’ll never hear Paul McCartney’s sweet-toned version in quite the same way again.
Since this arrived earlier this week, I’ve not listened to much else. I absolutely love it.
Here’s a video of her band playing St James Infirmary at last year’s Monterey Jazz Festival. Check it out.