Rebirth of the cool

With her dazzling new Miles Davis tribute album, singer Cassandra Wilson gives jazz a much-needed fix.

Published April 8, 1999 10:20AM (EDT)

Jazz needs a fix, a prescription for the torpor that seems to ail that most beleaguered of American music. The genre, for sure, is filled to the brim with great young players, good singers and accomplished composers and arrangers. But where are the characters, the larger-than-life personalities, the artists like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy
Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and Ella Fitzgerald, able to light up a room, a club, a hall, by the sheer glow of their charisma?

Cassandra Wilson, nearly alone among her peers, is gifted with that star power. As is made abundantly clear by the awe-inspiring "Traveling Miles," her third solo album for Blue Note, Wilson is precisely what jazz needs. A musical descendent of Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter, with debts owed to inspirations as disparate as Nina Simone and Joni Mitchell, the singer certainly has gained a measure of success, and without the help of a noisy publicity blitz. Her last two solo releases, "Blue Light 'Til Dawn" (1993) and the Grammy-winning "New Moon Daughter" (1996), together have sold more than 1 million copies worldwide, a remarkable figure for a jazz artist. And she has a capacity to reach well beyond her home base, if unscientific evidence is to be trusted: A roomful of radio programmers, affiliated with jazz, smooth jazz, Triple A, rock and urban formats, were left stunned by Wilson's dazzling set at this year's Gavin Seminar in New Orleans.

On stage in the Crescent City, her home for a brief period in the early '80s, Wilson alluded to another towering jazz figure, Miles Davis, during an intimate concert partly drawn from her much-anticipated new album. "Everybody seems to want to get away to someplace/Get away from themselves," she sang, taking her smoky contralto down low, and sometimes humming the melody. "Don't you want to be right here, right now?" Marvin Sewell, the Chicago guitarist with whom Wilson wrote the piece "Right Here, Right Now," strummed hard on an acoustic while bassist Lonnie Plaxico, the singer's musical director and longtime collaborator, dropped anchor with sustained notes and triplets.

Wilson, a bundle of dreadlocks topping finely sculpted facial features and searching brown eyes, was sometimes pensive, sometimes exuberant, slowly gyrating in place. On "Never Broken," a version of Wayne Shorter's 1965 "E.S.P." with lyrics by Wilson, she threw her head back,
laughing in joy and breaking out a radiant smile. At another point, she moved from a place of mourning to one of spiritual ecstasy. Plaxico, Sewell, drummer Marcus Baylor, percussionist Jeffrey Haynes (all of whom are heard on the new disc) and pianist Jason Moran followed her into her rarefied performance zone.

"I compare the stage and performing the music to a ritual, and there's a trance," she says later, back in Harlem, in an apartment building that was once home to Ellington himself. Wilson allows her words, much like the notes of her vocal phrases, to resonate fully before moving on to the next thought. "I encourage my musicians to join me in it, to be inside of the moment, most definitely 'right here, right now.' There's a tendency for musicians to be preoccupied with physically creating the music, technically reenacting the music, and the stage is not the place for that. On the stage, we have to abandon that, really. The time to get the technique together and to
learn the music and to occupy it is offstage. You do that in rehearsal. You get a clear knowledge of what the form is and the structure, where the possibilities for improvisation are. Once that's down, you get on the stage, and you let it all go. It takes a while to develop that kind of relationship."

In that respect, Wilson is celebrating the modus operandi of
Miles Davis, who typically gathered a team of trusted players and led the ensemble wherever his muse and the group's compositions beckoned. The
tradition and the future, forever intertwined, pulled like gravity. That
force is felt on "Run the Voodoo Down," a revision of 1970's "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down," built on Dave Holland's bass grind, Sewell's wah-wah declarations, Olu Dara's muted-cornet cries and Wilson's spooky lyrics about Mississippi mud and the road to destiny.

Elsewhere, she taps into other phases of Davis' career, with a delicately
flickering take on Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," a "Seven Steps to Heaven" that's all dramatic tension and glorious release and a slowly shifting reinterpretation of "Some Day My Prince Will Come." A brooding version of "Tutu," renamed "Resurrection Blues," is limned with Sewell's sobbing electric guitar; and an entrancing interpretation of "Blue in Green" (dubbed "Sky and Sea") is enlivened by Pat Metheny's classical guitar work and Kevin Breit's mandolin. Eric Lewis' piano, Regina Carter's violin and Steve Coleman's alto occasionally enter the rich mix.

The 43-year-old Wilson began playing piano at age 6, picked up a guitar at age 12 and learned how to play the instrument from a Mel Bay method book purchased by her musician father. She began writing songs about the same time, but got a degree in mass communications and worked in television before switching to a career in music in her late 20s. Saxophonist Earl Turbington hooked her up with jam sessions in New Orleans, where she recorded with Jasmine, a Brazilian-jazz outfit led by a harpist. She relocated to Brooklyn in 1982, aligning herself with the M-Base
funk collective led by Coleman, and working with New Air and Bob Belden's Rhythm Club, among others.

Davis' "Sketches of Spain" was played often in Wilson's childhood home in Jackson, Miss., but his music didn't enter her discography until 1985 with the recording of "Blue in Green" on her debut album, "Point of View." She wrote the new album's title track in 1991, the year of Davis' death. Two years ago, Jazz at Lincoln Center commissioned Wilson to produce and perform an homage to Davis, in six nights of music at Alice Tully Hall. That series, and her recorded tribute, were deeply personal and long overdue, she says. She's been "traveling Miles," so to speak, since forever.

"It's about jazz as a music of the moment, a music not based on repertoire but on innovation, on constant evolution, a belief that the music is living," she says. "He may have died but he was born again. He's always being reborn. It's ongoing. For everyone, Miles Davis is such a part of the fabric of our lives. He's such an incredible symbol of what America is, what this culture is about -- innovation and growth, the drive, the need to discover new vistas, to create all kinds of possibilities."

By Philip Booth

Philip Booth is a freelance writer in Tampa, Fla.

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