Beyond the jazz ghetto

James Marcus reviews Cassandra Wilson's album "New Moon Daughter".

Published September 1, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Cassandra Wilson arrived in New York from New Orleans in 1982 and
promptly made a name for herself as the jazz vocalist to watch. At
first, Wilson was something of a stylistic chameleon. On a release like "Blue
Skies" (JMT), she applied her dark-toned contralto to a set of standards,
inspiring comparisons to Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln. More often, though,
she was associated with M-BASE -- the Brooklyn collective whose thumping fusion of
jazz and funk tended to overwhelm Wilson's voice. The singer steered back and
forth between these two camps throughout the 1980s, attempting to satisfy both
and often satisfying neither. Her talent was never in question -- indeed, her
singing grew steadily more agile and distinctive -- but Wilson seemed unsure of
what to do with it.
In 1993, however, she came up with an answer, teaming with producer Craig
Street to record "Blue Light 'Til Dawn" (Blue Note). With its pared-down,
sometimes spooky arrangements, the disk sounded nothing like a traditional jazz
outing, nor did it suggest the dance-floor agenda of Wilson's M-BASE colleagues.
The sound was spare and low-tech -- mostly acoustic guitar, violin, bass, and
percussion, with occasional dabs of cornet or pedal steel -- and calculated to
spotlight the singer's sensuous, swooping delivery.

By James Marcus

James Marcus is a critic, translator and novelist living in Portland, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to Salon.

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