Loverly (Blue Note)

Cassandra Wilson

Released June 2008

Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album 2009

JazzTimes Top 10 Albums of 2008




In a world of niche audiences, the singer who refuses to go gently into a particular niche and stay there is at best a challenge and at worst a double agent. Cassandra Wilson, the willfully original jazz singer, has been puzzling her audiences for nearly half of her fifty-two years. Jazz radar first picked her up as a member of the nineteen-eighties collective M-Base, whose name, an acronym for MacroBasic Array of Structured Extemporizations, signalled its attempt to promulgate new ways of thinking about improvisation. With M-Base she worked as both leader and sideman in styles from avant-garde jazz to funk. Her originality, irresistibly evident in her confidential smokehouse contralto, spurred admirers to coax her into a more glamorous career—as a star. A beautiful, voluptuous woman, with a golden complexion and an inviting smile, she has now been a star for two decades, but a reluctant one, known for her expansion of the jazz repertory and her eagerness to lose herself in an ensemble. She seems intent on maintaining the attitude of a sideman. If it isn’t a team effort, where’s the fun? If you can’t take risks, what’s the point?

Wilson’s refusal to accept any single idea of how to steer her career was apparent last week with the release of a new album and two very different New York appearances. The album, “Loverly,” is an unalloyed triumph, and her record company, Blue Note, is promoting it as her first album of standards in twenty years. (The claim is off by a decade – everyone seems to want to forget her 1997 record, “Rendezvous” – but still.) Singing during an air-conditioning failure at the Blue Note (the club—no relation to the record label), she gave a glowing account of the material from the album. Despite the steam-bath ambience—standards, she noted, were written before air-conditioning—she sang with open-throated, pitch-perfect vivacity, nailing every song. But two days before, at bam, as the climax of a monthlong festival devoted to the heritage of the Mississippi Delta—Wilson is a native of Jackson, Mississippi—her intonation wavered a bit as she indulged in endless vamping grooves, sacrificing melodic concision for rhythmic repetition. Wilson has always thrived on rhythmic complexity, but her best work, including “Loverly,” balances it with melodic, harmonic, and verbal nuances that transform evergreens into personal deliberations, frequently underscored with an ironic eroticism. If the bamperformance, alternately gripping and monotonous, left some in the audience bewildered, it succeeded in driving home her unconventional achievement, combining promiscuous collaboration (both engagements featured the prodigious twenty-one-year-old pianist Jonathan Batiste) and determination to rethink the jazz songbook.

Wilson’s 1986 début, aptly titled “Point of View,” demonstrated her novel approach to repertory, presenting her adaptations of jazz instrumentals, including works by her then frequent partner, the M-Base founder and saxophonist, Steve Coleman. In those days, mixing it up with an edgy, independent group of musicians, she appeared shy, barely articulating lyrics and making more eye contact with the band than with the audience. How long ago was that? At bam, she remarked on how great it was to be back in Brooklyn and then blanked on the name of the street where she had lived.

In 1992, having recorded more than a dozen albums and earned little more than minor cult status, Wilson signed with Blue Note and, mentored by the label’s president, Bruce Lundvall, released the career-defining opus, “Blue Light ’Til Dawn” (1993). Her attributes as a singer had long been apparent: the husky timbre, which favors her lower register; an affinity for melodic embellishments replete with sighs and moans; and a canny back-of-the-beat rhythmic attack. “Blue Light ’Til Dawn” and its Grammy-winning follow-up, “New Moon Daughter” (1996), uncovered her Mississippi roots, hardly noted in her earlier work, and freed her to revisit more recent pop songs, from the Monkees to U2, something most jazz singers were disinclined to do. She also emerged as a nonpareil blues singer—a natural, reclaiming the Delta tradition of Robert Johnson and Son House. Even today, those albums convey the excitement of an artist coming into her own, testing her mettle and rejoicing in its supple strength. At the same time, Wilson transformed herself into a knowing, confident concert artist. She came out from the wings as a knockout diva, kicking off her shoes—she always kicks off her shoes—and taking the microphone, the band, and the whole damned stage in hand.

It had been a decade in coming, but having found an agreeable formula, engineered in part by the producer Craig Street, Wilson seemed to recognize its limitations and to be unwilling to repeat herself. She recorded nothing for two years, and the payoff, “Rendezvous,” took understatement to the point of incoherence. Then, in 1999, she released a project that had occupied her for two years: “Traveling Miles,” a self-produced tribute to Miles Davis that, focussing more on Davis’s jazz-fusion compositions than on his famous interpretations of standards, received mixed notices but endures as one of the most substantive of numberless Davis homages. Inspired by Davis’s “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” she wrote a marvellous lyric:

i got high john in my pocket

and mud on my shoes

walked all the way from mississippi

just to spread the news

don’t care for idle conversation

i’m not your girl about town

but when it comes to making music

i run the voodoo down

Three years later, she produced what many regard as her finest album, “Belly of the Sun,” which found a new body of standards in the work of Delta bluesmen, pieces from New Orleans and Brazil, and numbers by Bob Dylan, the Band, and Jimmy Webb. This album sealed her involvement with the guitarist Marvin Sewell, who had appeared on “Traveling Miles.” His virtuosity on acoustic and electric guitars is enhanced by attachments that can make him sound like a violinist, a cellist, a singer, or an entire rhythm section. Wilson’s bond with Sewell anchors the latest album, too. Their duet on “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” opens with Sewell’s measured dissonances; Wilson gauges her entrance, and soon establishes a gentle, swinging beat, but the performance never completely settles into it, remaining, instead, balanced on the edge of dissonance and consonance, rubato and swing.

“Loverly” suggests excitement from the first—Jason Moran’s jaunty sixteen-bar piano introduction to “Lover Come Back to Me,” built on a two-note figure played over a quick shuffle rhythm—and it comes as an antidote to its immediate predecessors, “Glamoured” (2003) and “Thunderbird” (2006), which reflected production concepts more calculated than intuitive. Despite the familiarity of the album’s material, there isn’t much nostalgia here. For Wilson and the band, the songs aren’t covered in the barnacles of previous interpretations; it’s as if they had just been discovered in an old trunk. Wilson occasionally uses flat intonation as a spur, creating a moment of tension before stressing the notes and chords that define a song’s arc. The band is superb throughout. Moran phrases on the beat and against it, meshes clattering chords with the rhythm section, and adds harmonic twists that knock the songs slightly askew. Lonnie Plaxico, the bassist on all but the duet selections, is strong and limber, and Herlin Riley’s robust drumming is amplified by the resourceful Nigerian percussionist Lekan Babalola. (Nicholas Payton, uncredited, plays a trumpet solo on “Lover Come Back to Me,” overdubbed during a sound mix.)

The album reflects the circumstances in which it was made: Wilson rented a house in Mississippi and turned it into a studio. The informality of the venture is manifest in Ray Noble’s 1934 ballad, “The Very Thought of You,” performed as a duet with bassist Reginald Veal. During his solo, Wilson crosses the room and resumes her vocal slightly off mike before moving back into position. In the same number, she swallows a word (“above”), a flub that in other circumstances might have occasioned another take. But in this project it’s spontaneity that counts—including five seconds of silence before she sings the song’s last word.

The album is full of such surprises. Meredith Willson’s “Till There Was You” begins with a seventy-second prologue that seems provocatively unrelated to the song but soon triggers intricate embellishments from Wilson, including a moaning counterpoint to Sewell’s solo. The introduction on “Gone with the Wind” sets up a countermelody that is sustained during the entire performance, putting a stamp on a song that had been stamped by virtually every exponent of the classic American songbook—Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day, Tony Bennett, and on and on. One wonders, however, if any of her forebears could have done as well by Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom,” which Wilson personalizes and rejuvenates, laughing in one verse and clearly revelling in her rapport with the band. If making records were as effortless as “Loverly” sounds, there would be a lot more of them.

Gary Giddins, The New Yorker (June 16, 2008)

Track Listing:

1. Lover Come Back to Me (Oscar Hammerstein II / Sigmund Romberg) 4:16

2. A Day In The Life Of A Fool (Luiz Bonfá / Carl Sigman) 4:58

3. Wouldn’t It Be Loverly (Alan Jay Lerner / Frederick Loewe) 5:02

4. Gone with the Wind (Herbert Magidson / Allie Wrubel) 5:51

5. Caravan (Duke Ellington / Irving Mills / Juan Tizol) 4:23

6. ‘Til There Was You (Meredith Willson) 6:42

7. Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most 5:01

8. Arere 5:42

9. St. James Infirmary (Irving Mills) 4:40

10. Dust My Broom (Elmore James / Robert Johnson) 4:46

11. The Very Thought of You (Ray Noble) 4:47

12. Sleepin’ Bee (Harold Arlen / Truman Capote) 4:35


Cassandra Wilson: vocals

Jason Moran: piano (1-6, 8-10, 12)

Marvin Sewell: guitar (1-10, 12)

Lonnie Plaxico: acoustic bass (1-6, 8-10, 12)

Reginald Veal: acoustic bass (11)

Herlin Riley: drums (1-6, 8-10, 12)

Lekan Babalola: percussion (1, 2, 4-6, 8-10)

Rhonda Richmond: background vocals (8)

Nicholas Payton: trumpet (1)

Recorded August 13 – 17, 2007, at Petit Bois Studios, Jackson, MS

Produced by Cassandra Wilson

Executive producer: Bruce Lundvall

Assistant producer: Donald Thomas


Loverly is being billed as Cassandra Wilson’s “return to jazz,” even if, following 2006’s Thunderbird, the T Bone Burnett-produced album on which Wilson more than flirted with electronic percussion and sampling, practically anything that adhered to standard instrumentation and relatively straightforward vocalizing would be a return to jazz.
Here she keeps things deliberately and smartly simple-the self-produced Loverly is as austere as Thunderbird was fussy. And with a setlist consisting entirely of standards, Wilson’s first such since 1988’s Blue Skies, it feels like a homecoming. Working with Marvin Sewell on guitars, Jason Moran on piano, longtime bassist Lonnie Plaxico, drummer Herlin Riley and Nigerian percussionist Lekan Babalola, with a small handful of guests, Loverly stands as one of Wilson’s coziest, loverly-est recordings. Which is not to say it isn’t daring-quite the opposite, it’s full of surprises.
For a singer whose previous covers have run from the Monkees and Hank Williams to U2 and Son House, the Great American Songbook would be way too confining for Wilson. Amidst the pop and Broadway numbers (the album title is drawn from My Fair Lady’s “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” given a midtempo, melancholic reading), she rips into back-to-back blues: a NOLA-fied “St. James Infirmary” that’s all funked-up drums and salacious guitar, and a slinky, nasty “Dust My Broom,” Robert Johnson via Elmore James, that quickly reminds that Wilson need not be smooth to be sexy. Her aerated take on Luiz Bonfa’s bossa-nova progenitor “Black Orpheus” smolders while it soothes, and even her treatment of the more standard standards diverges: “Caravan” positively rocks, and Fran Landesman’s paean to feeling like crap at the worst possible time, “Spring Can Really Hang You Up,” nothing but Wilson and Sewell’s acoustic, is dire enough to keep anyone indoors till summer.
As ever, Wilson’s flexibility takes what in other hands might have been rote exercise and transforms it into a new-thrill-every-minute experience.

Jeff Tamarkin (JazzTimes)