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Singing Like Solomon

Cassandra Wilson
Liquid Assets: Cassandra Wilson rides a tide of song on her new album

The soulful elegance of vocalist Cassandra Wilson

By Nehanda Imara

MOST JAZZ/BLUES enthusiasts would think no one could do the classic "Strange Fruit" after Billie Holiday. Wrong. Cassandra Wilson is a poet who boldly uses her jazz voice to stretch the limits of traditional jazz. In her most recent album, New Moon Daughter (Blue Note), she brings attention to the words, not the form. Her poetic style treats the words as sound as opposed to staying within the familiar musical structures. Typical of jazz is a formulaic style in which each verse builds upon the next until the "hook." Wilson deconstructs this style. She even rejects the traditional image of most female jazz singers, saying, "I've often cringed when I heard myself described as a 'jazz singer.' I've always thought of myself as a jazz vocalist, if you understand the difference."

The difference is felt in Wilson's fearlessness to interpret a song, either her own or someone else's, as if she were inside each lyric. She gives the listener a piece of her soul along with the song. In "Strange Fruit," she speak-sings the lyrics, as a lamentation, perhaps born of a personal memory full of imagery the song recreates. Born in the South 40 years ago, Wilson, as a black female artist, has undoubtedly been passionately influenced by the experiences indicative of the region. Her smoky, rich and deep alto is suited for this explosively haunting song. Wilson is not your average sequined-dress-wearing songstress. The influences of Holiday, Abby Lincoln and Better Carter ring clear and strong. Wilson, like these women, breaks all the molds.

Jackson, Miss., is where Wilson was nurtured and raised. The womb of the contemporary jazz/blues genre groomed her to uphold the integrity laid down by the original founding fathers and mothers. Her rendition of Son Houses' "Death Letter" exemplifies this tradition of paying homage. Many of the great innovators like House participated in a well-known homage ritual when moving from the South to the North during the 1950s. On the highway, there was a crossroads, a juncture at which the musician had to make a pact with the devil. It was a mocking and a flirting with death, a departure from the past, an ascendance to the hip urban centers of Chicago and Detroit.

In Wilson's "A Little Warm Death," she seems to be symbolically making this "rite of passage" ritual through the song's deliciously flirtatious lyrics. The tempo is up and spicy. She is sensuous and sassy, creating a duality of meanings typical of classical blues. Secular and spiritual simultaneously, "A Little Warm Death" makes you want to dance and contemplate, ponder and pounce, hesitate and rush.

Of the 12 songs on the album, Wilson authored five, of which "Solomon Sang" is the most beautiful. This poetic rendition of the biblical king is full of spiritual wisdom and soulful melodies. "Solomon Sang" exemplifies a well-developed tradition of black literature, where the black church influences every aspect of life, love, family, art and politics. The climatic hook of the song gently lifts the listener up and then glides deep into the most captivating of heavenly lyrics: "Love for woman love for God/Not so simple not so hard/For the spirit pleasure is sweet/And surrender set him free, free/Set him free."

Free is the best way to describe Wilson's choice of instruments. There is no piano. Acoustic guitars, African drums and vibes, Irish bozouki, organ, violins and accordion flavor these bountiful dishes of soul food. Like a cook juggling spices in a kitchen, Wilson selects and matches instrument to song with the natural precision of a master chef. In Neil Young's "Harvest Moon," for instance, she has chosen acoustic and resophonic guitars, bass, whistling and lampshades to create an eerie, sweet, breezy sensation. Wilson's album is brilliant and luscious. Drink of her lunar nectar. Cool your appetite in the ancestral wisdom she emanates. Satisfaction guaranteed.

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From the August 29-September 4, 1996 issue of Metro

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