On her previous Blue Note recordings, Cassandra Wilson has steadily honed her own style and defined her own turf, an amalgam of jazz, blues, folk music, country, R&B, and American songbook. With each release she’s moved further into that territory, more clearly defining and perfecting her vision. Blue Light Till Dawn and New Moon Daughter established Wilson’s heady brew consisting of jazz standards, serious classic blues material, pop music tunes given a new reading, and a few originals that held their ground with the exceptional cover material. Her trademark vocal sound blended with the trademark group sound of her recordings—drums, bass, percussion and lots of guitar (acoustic, electric, slide), but rarely any piano. Guest musicians would fill other sounds and textures.
Her ambitious Traveling Miles CD was a resounding artistic success, one that should have settled the question of Wilson’s ‘jazz’ label once and for all. While she remained as restless and mercurial as Miles himself, Wilson clearly understood and loved the music called jazz. But she refused to limit herself to its musical vocabulary. Belly of the Sun was to be Wilson’s ‘blues’ album, though the blues had clearly always informed and influenced her vocal work heavily. While blues did figure prominently on that disc, so did American popular music and Brazilian music. As usual, Wilson did not limit herself to one musical vocabulary or palette, and as always, her vocal skills were unquestionable.
Glamoured, her 2003 release, used the same formula, this time adding the guitar work of producer Fabrizzio Sotti, whose guitar is as much the imprint of this CD as Wilson’s voice. It was a solid performance and another beautiful record, but somehow the gas seemed to be running out of Wilson’s particular brand of genre-hopping. What would she do next?
Thunderbird, produced by Americana singer/songwriter T-Bone Burnett, the man who made bluegrass hip again with his film work on O, Brother Where Art Thou? And Cold Mountain, is the answer. And Wilson has breathed new life into the formula, and in the process upped the ante once again. Wilson is generally credited with inspiring up and coming jazzy pop singers like Norah Jones and Lizz Wright as well as contributing to the neo-soul movement that features singers like Erykah Badu and India.Arie (who duetted with Wilson on Belly of the Sun), but it’s difficult to imagine either singer pulling off a disc as well-integrated and paced as Thunderbird. It’s long been accepted by most that Wilson inhabits a musical space that she truly owns, and Thunderbird makes it clear that despite the rise of singers who have emulated aspects of Wilson’s approach, she still very much owns that space.
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. Add to that the somewhat curious cover art—whereas previous CDs have always featured a color photograph of Ms. Wilson, often with sensual overtones (though not necessarily overtly sexy), Thunderbird features a heavily manipulated (to appear like a drawing) photograph of half her face and a multi-colored thunderbird in the upper right hand corner. It’s stark compared to her other CDs, and it hints that what’s inside is not like what has come before.
The skittering opening sample from the Wild Tchapatoulas recording of “Hey-Pocky-A-Way” is like suddenly coming across something on the radio dial, a ghostly message from the past that provides the sonic anchor for the entire opening track, “Go to Mexico.” It’s clear right from the start that Wilson will not deny herself any modern recording studio technique that can be used to add to the sonic stew she’s working on here. Samples, loops, programming, vocal effects that include echo and multi-tracked vocal work as well as studio manipulation of vocals are all utilized. Wilson has no fear that the listener will hear these as techniques to disguise vocal imperfections—it’s well known and documented that she has all the vocal chops she’ll ever need. Some will take her to task for it, perhaps, but consider this: when a pop artist successfully incorporates some elements of jazz music (actual improvisation, or decent horn charts, whatever), it is enjoyed by those who don’t place an overabundance of importance on strictly classifying everything. But, when a legitimate jazz artist incorporates modern popular music production into their work, it’s suddenly somehow a lesser performance? I don’t think so. In all honesty, the better the musician, the more creative he or she will probably be with these tools, and hopefully, that means the music will also be more interesting.
Wilson provides several of these layered tracks, and they are generally successful. She does a nice job with the Wallflowers song “Closer to You” that is essentially an acoustic quartet except for co-producer Keefus Ciancia’s keyboards (in addition to piano), but that adds a world of sound and textures. Burnett and Ciancia have wisely chosen to put Cassandra’s voice way up front in the mix, and that certainly emphasizes her vocal talent as well as keeping the carefully-constructed studio sonic landscapes an interesting part of the mix rather than a distraction. One feels that if Wilson were to perform these same songs live with a primarily acoustic group of the type she’s utilized in the past, they would be no less interesting. Sometimes the effect is hypnotizing, as though one were under the influence of a narcotic, as on the original song “It Would Be So Easy” or even the closing Wilson penned track, “Tarot” in which she recites lyrics like incantations or spells: “Don’t give up/don’t walk away/you’re just a little bit closer/than you were yesterday/Eyes on the prize/don’t look away/you’re just a little bit closer/than you were yesterday.”
There’s another aspect to Thunderbird, though, that not only links it to all the great albums Wilson has recorded for Blue Note, it shows that Wilson is committed to creating new sounds and new vocal interpretations of songs as long as they serve the song. Her versions of traditional blues songs or country and folk music certainly do play to her vocal strengths, but they also do service to the song by acknowledging it as an important piece of American popular music and by treating it with respect but not as a museum piece. Here, Wilson takes a full seven minutes to luxuriously unfold her version of “Easy Rider,” moving from an out of time, guitar buoyed front porch first verse to an all-out rock verse, on which guitarists Colin Linden and Marc Ribot are cut loose (and two drummers, Jim Keltner and Bill Maxwell, are featured) to a prayerful final verse accompanied only by Ciancia’s acoustic piano (a rare sound for Wilson), before exploding back into an all-out blues/rock finale. Her version of Willie Dixon’s “I Want to Be Loved” is much more straightforward, this time with Keb’ Mo’ added on guitar in place of Ribot. Taking the song at an achingly slow tempo, Wilson works up some real grit, and probably infuses the blues with more languid sexuality than any singer since Billie Holiday. This seems in many ways like the loosest performance on Thunderbird, and it provides a nice balance to the more studio-structured material. Wilson returns to a sound that might have come off Glamoured, the exquisite “Lost” featuring Wilson backed only by Ribot’s gorgeous, near-traditional guitar work. She also takes on the traditional folk song “Red River Valley,” again backed only by guitar (this time Colin Linden doing some nice slide work). When Wilson sings the first verse a capella, you will stop breathing to follow the rise and fall of her voice. Both singer and guitarist manage to imbue the song with a sense of blues, but ultimately it is the beauty of the melody and the words that carry this piece—an honest song delivered honestly.
If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that Thunderbird will turn out to be an important transitional album for Cassandra Wilson, and that she’ll continue to sprinkle her formula of mixing basic American musical styles with modern studio and instrumental techniques. But it would be a mistake to assume that the next Cassandra Wilson record will necessarily sound much like Thunderbird. For one thing, Wilson has been working with producers for only one album each lately, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue in the future. In all honesty, I don’t see anything that should keep Thunderbird from being hugely popular with lots of folks who don’t normally consider themselves jazz fans. Thunderbird is an approachable, listener-friendly album that also has an enormous amount of musical substance for those who are listening for it.