The voice is more visual than audible; shaded, iridescent, tangible, substantial. It seems to flow effortlessly.
Cassandra Wilson, vocals
Marvin Sewell, guitar
Jonathan Batiste, piano
Reginald Veal, bass
Herlin Riley, drums
Lekan Babalola, percussion
Read any of the dozen or so biographies on Cassandra Wilson and you’ll discover some basics: born and reared in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s and 70s by musician and educator parents. She studied piano for 13 years and played clarinet in the concert and marching bands of junior high school. During the 70s, she could be found performing Joni Mitchell songs behind an acoustic guitar, or in front of a large funk band, or in the company of long-time friends in an all-girls band.
In the eighties, Cassandra moved to New Orleans, and performed with Earl Turbinton and Ellis Marsalis. Quite by accident, she was relocated to East Organe, New Jersey where she made a decision to take her changes on the New York jazz scene. After a stint as the main vocalist with Steve Coleman’s M-Base Collective, Cassandra began recording on her own. Her development can be tracked through her discography. From the standards on Blue Skies to the Grammy-winning New Moon Daughter, to the combination of originals and interpretations played by a collection of Mississippi and New York musicians on both the 2001 release, Belly of the Sun, and 2003’s Glamoured, Cassandra continues to evolve as a vocalist, songwriter, and producer.
In 2000, Wilson returned to Mississippi to establish Ojah Media Group. Ojah, a Yoruba word meaning, the marketplace, is an independent multi-media entity dedicated to documenting and marketing the unique sounds emanating from Mississippi’s fertile soil, and its multi-cultural influences. Ojah’s premiere artists, singer-songwriter Rhonda Richmond, released her first CD, Oshogbo Town (produced by Wilson and engineered by Sean Mackie) in 2003. Inspired by the Yoruba deity, Oshun, both Oshogbo Town and Rhythm and Strings feature the original compositions and arrangements for which Richmond is celebrated.
For thunderbird, her last Blue Note recording in 2006, vocalist Cassandra Wilson explored the outer reaches of jazz with a multilayered sonic approach piloted by pop producer T Bone Burnett and supported by his A-team of studio musicians including guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Jim Keltner. This time, Wilson ventures into another fascinating direction with Loverly, a tantalizing, rhythmically driven collection of jazz standards given new luster with a top-drawer band of friends that includes Marvin Sewell on guitar, Jason Moran on piano, Herlin Riley on drums, Lekan Babalola on percussion and Lonnie Plaxico on bass (with bassist Reginald Veal and trumpeter Nicholas Payton guesting).
Some of the songs on Loverly were suggestions from Blue Note label head Bruce Lundvall. “When Bruce heard I wanted to do a standards album, he came up with songs that I had never heard of,” says Wilson. “He knows more standards than anyone I know. He made me a list.” On the list were well-worn classics like “Caravan” which Wilson takes upbeat with noteworthy solos by Sewell and Moran, and the rapturous “Gone With the Wind,” with a striking Sewell opening and a subtle groove. It was the first song of the session and features “piano work that’s crazy,” says Wilson. Also on the list were some lesser-knowns such as “Lover Come Back,” which Wilson wanted to deliver in a bouncy vibe of late ‘40s, early ‘50s music. When Wilson was mixing the album in New Orleans, Payton dropped by and improvised over a section.
Even though Wilson is credited as the producer of Loverly, she says that the songs came together in a joint effort with her band. “I am the unproducer,” she says with a laugh. “I listen to everyone’s opinion about the songs. Some people say that that is a fault. But I like the democratic approach. I like the input, and then we play the tunes, capturing the energy and the improvisational voices of everyone.”
Cassandra Wilson is a world renowned vocalist, songwriter and producer, with an extraordinary following, but at heart she is still a Mississippi girl whose art reflects her deep musical and cultural roots, anchored in the fertile Mississippi soil.