These are tough times for jazz vocalists. Most have recorded all the life out of the American Songbook repertoire, beating standards into an early death. Yet, recordings of standards by jazz singers keep coming out and coming out, and coming out. Thank goodness there are a few vocalists, like Norma Winstone, who have uncompromising taste and are willing to step out on a ledge, usually with great results.
Cassandra Wilson has always been one of these kinds of jazz singers. Sure, she’s covered the standard repertoire, as on her previous and Grammy winning recording Loverly, but she’s also experimented with having two guitarists in her band, as well as made choices of repertoire that fall well off the beaten path. On Silver Pony, Wilson again moves away from the tried and true and steps out into the abyss. The results are incredible.
This album, a mix of live and studio dates, is actually more about her band and the interactions possible between empathetic musicians. The opening, “Lover Come Back To Me,” is full of swishy splashes of color from the band miraculously fashioned back to them through Wilson’s use of extended vocalisms, which are, in turn, refashioned and sent back to her. The end product is truly brilliant.
“Went Down To St. James Infirmary” gets a much looser and hipper reading in this live version than the one presented on her studio cut from Loverly. The band finds a groove, locked in the pocket most securely by guitarist Marvin Sewell that is so hip even the widest trousers can hang on to these backbeats. Wilson does her part with stellar wordless vocalizations that flip back and forth between sly emotional vectors and straight up jazz maneuvers.
The band gets their due on “A Night In Seville.” Powerhouse drummer Herlin Riley, keyboardist Jonathan Batiste, percussionist Lekan Babalola and Sewell groove on their own in a manner reminiscent of some of Stuff’s rhythm section workouts from the 1970s. Segueing into “Beneath A Silver Moon,” the feel isn’t changed, it’s only toned down to make room for Wilson’s out-of-time lyric calls. Guest saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, who has really turned himself into a stellar musician of late, adds uncertainty in a cool and totally appropriate manner.
This is not a recording for those who want to listen to the tried-and-true. If, however, you like to hear musicians take chances then you can do no better than to start here.