Cassandra Wilson helped influence the neo-soul movement from the jazz side with her warm, soul-infused vocals.
by Marshall Bowden
I first became familiar with Cassandra Wilson when I wandered into a CD store one midsummer afternoon and came out with a copy of Wilson’s then-newly released CD Traveling Miles. The album was a tribute to, and inspired by, Miles Davis, but although there were renditions of Miles’ work, there were also original songs by Wilson that were sometimes about Davis and sometimes merely sought to evoke moods that might remind the listener of the famous trumpet player.
I ended up absolutely loving the album and listened to it frequently over the next few years during which time I backfilled by listening to Wilson’s first two Blue Note releases, Blue Light Till Dawn and New Moon Daughter. What was clear from those albums was that Cassandra Wilson was a very talented singer who worked within a framework that was jazz-oriented but which was not limited to jazz. Her choice of repertoire increasingly showed the influence of the songwriters and recording artists of the 1960s and 1970s who were working in the rock and pop music space.
Wilson recorded Blue Light Till Dawn in 1993 and New Moon Daughter in 1996. Black female singers on the pop side were beginning to broaden their sounds as well. Erykah Badu’s debut album Baduizm, was released in 1996, and it brought influences like Roberta Flack and Billie Holiday into the mix while retaining a modern, hip hop influenced production. While the newly coined neo-soul sound combined soul, jazz, and R&B with some of the musical elements of hip hop and electronic music, Wilson brought her warm, soul-infused vocal sound to pop music covers of songs made famous by white pop and rock artists as well as some deep blues by the likes of Son House and Robert Johnson.
Cassandra Wilson’s 2001 release Belly of the Sun revealed her to be an influential performer to aspiring jazz singers, but more importantly, it revealed her to be influential in terms of her choice of repertoire and her ability to take songs outside of what would be seen as the ‘normal’ repertoire for jazz singers–ie, standards of the American songbook by Rogers & Hammerstein, Noel Coward, Sammy Cohn, and others. For example, her recording of Robbie Robertson’s “The Weight” is performed like a spiritual, emphasizing the song’s gospel influence while at the same time introducing African percussion and soul elements into her delivery. She not only covers and reimagines songs by Robertson, James Taylor, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Jimmy Webb, and Bob Dylan, but also traditional blues like “Darkness on the Delta,” “You Gotta Move,” and “Hot Tamales.” In addition, Wilson wrote “Justice,” an ode to reparations, and “Just Another Parade,” on which she sings with India.Arie, another neo-soul singer who arrive on the scene in 2000 with Acoustic Soul.
Although Wilson had become pretty popular by this time and was being touted as the best living jazz singer there were plenty of naysayers who declared that she wasn’t really a jazz singer, and in fact, she wasn’t worried about staying within the jazz framework, because it wasn’t where she was headed. David Adler of All Music said that “While displaying a jazz singer’s mastery of melodic nuance and improvisatory phrasing, Wilson draws on a variety of non-jazz idioms — roots music, rock, Delta blues, country, soul — to create a kind of earthy, intelligent pop with obvious crossover appeal.” My own review of Belly of the Sun for PopMatters stated “If, despite all that, all you can worry about is whether Belly of the Sun is a “real” jazz album or not, it’s your problem, not Cassandra’s. The table has been set and the meal is a sumptuous one. Whether you partake or not is your gain or loss.”
In 2003 Lizz Wright seemed to take up Wilson’s mantle and released the amazing record Salt, on which she performed songs as diverse as “Afro Blue,” “Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly,” and the Gordon Jenkins classic “Goodbye.” She also composed the title track and three of the album’s last four tracks, and they put Wright firmly in the neo-soul camp (the other track is an original by bassist Brian Blade, who plays on the album.) On the followup, Dreaming Wide Awake, Wright confirmed that she was part of the Cassandra Wilson school, covering songs that include “A Taste of Honey,” “Stop” by Joe Henry, “Get Together,” and Neil Young’s “Old Man.” Of that album, I wrote “Wright’s spiritual traveling companions include such talented jazz and soul artists as Cassandra Wilson, Nina Simone, and Meshell Ndegeocello. Dreaming Wide Awake demonstrates that she’s well poised to join such august company.”
Cassandra Wilson continued in a similar vein with 2003’s Glamoured, but in 2005 she released her most experimental album yet. Thunderbird was recorded with T-Bone Burnett at the mixing board, but there were also collaborations with musicians such as Keefus Ciancia (originally with Everlast), Keb Mo, and Dr. Dre’s protege Mike Elizondo. The opening track, “Go To Mexico” was built around a sample of the Wild Tchoupitoulas song “Hey Pocky-a Way” and it was quite an eye-opener for many of Wilson’s longtime listeners. There are still tracks that could have come off any of Wilson’s albums–“Poet,” “Easy Rider,” or “Red River Valley,” but Thunderbird was definitely a line in the sand that some listeners could not cross.
At the time Thunderbird was released I said “The biggest difference between Thunderbird and its predecessors is that the sound here is much more textured, with lots more sonic space filled in by various sounds. Where previously you had space, you’ve now got loops and samples, plenty of guitar, and an overall sound that is at once a bit rougher than Wilson’s standard recordings and yet completely a product of the studio.” I’d still agree with that assessment, but in listening to the record now I don’t see it as such a huge departure from her previous work. Apparently many disagreed, because Wilson’s next abum, Loverly (2007), was the jazz standards album that Blue Note and many fans had been waiting a long time for. Recorded with pianist Jason Moran on hand, the album was completely straight-ahead jazz.
Wilson followed Loverly up with Silver Pony, her final Blue Note album. It hewed pretty close to the formula Wilson had followed since Blue Light Til Dawn, but many found it repetitive and a bit rehashed. I can’t help but feel that Wilson was punished–by her label and the record-buying public–for straying so far outside the bounds of what they considered to be her wheelhouse. Dropped by Blue Note, she recorded the gorgeous Another Country, featuring Italian guitarist Fabrizio Sotti (with whom she worked on Glamoured). She had to use the now-defunct app MusicPledge to raise the money for the 2015 recording Coming Forth By Day, a tribute to Billie Holiday that was similar in many ways to Traveling Miles. Though many of the tracks are standards and are associated with Holiday, it’s far from a traditional jazz record.
The sounds and ideas behind neo-soul can still be heard today in recordings by artists such as KeyiaA, Amber Mark, Umi, and Q.
KeyiaA, who recently released her first album Forever, Ya Girl, is from Chicago but now works out of New York City. Her music makes heavy use of hip hop and electronic recording techniques, giving her a very personal sound. Her vocals are deeply rooted in R&B, a fact that might be obscured by some of the production. Her cover of Prince’s “Do Yourself A Favor” takes the song down a few notches and conveys multiple layers of empowerment and self-doubt that make it more than a pop song. KeyiaA has a unique take on this sound, but it definitely grows out of the fertile soil of neo-soul.
Amber Mark has a slightly more traditional take on her version of the neo-soul sound but her production (which she does herself) creates a very modern sound at the same time. She also brings in elements of Brazilian music that lend a fresh quality to the sound of her 2017 debut album 3:33 AM and its followup, the 2018 EP Conexao. On the EP she covers Sade’s “Love Is Stronger Than Pride,” an acknowledgment of the impact of Sade’s music on the sound of Quiet Storm and, eventually, the neo-soul sound. Or sounds, because for all the influences and reasons for making music these artists share, they are deeply individual in their approaches, leaving listeners with some fantastic sounds to explore.