Years from now, when the work of Cassandra Wilson is discussed among jazz fans, scholars, and critics, two albums will stand out among her canon. The first, "Blue Light 'Til Dawn", her debut on Blue Note, was a breakthrough for the singer. After a tenure at Verve Records that found Wilson drifting further from the experimental jazz-funk of the seminal M-Base collective and sounding increasingly like a Betty Carter clone, producer Craig Street stressed spartan instrumentation, moody arrangements, and odd covers of Robert Johnson's "Come in My Kitchen", Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey", and Joni Mitchell's "Black Crow" to complement Wilson's smoky contralto. The end result was a seamless blend of jazz, blues, country, and folk that crossed borders: it was a style that sounded oddly familiar yet was the singer's own. The sound was further realized with the Grammy-winning "New Moon Daughter" in 1996.
By the time Wilson began her "Traveling Miles" project in 1997, her creative fires could have melted lead. Parting ways with producer Street (who has since produced Me'Shell Ndegeocello's brilliant CD "Bitter", k.d.lang's "Drag", and Susana Baca's "Eco de Sombras"), Wilson went on a journey to understand the spirit of Miles Davis, instead of a bunch of hastily done covers. When the "Traveling Miles" album finally was released last year, listeners discovered with Wilson that the Dark Prince had an understanding of the blues that would make Robert Johnson blush. Initially, I didn't think it stood up to the Street-produced albums.
That was before I bought "Bitter" and "Eco de Sombras", which are excellent in spite of Street's production.
Listening to "Traveling Miles" eighteen months later I'm surprised at how it's grown on me. I'm convinced that if Craig Street had produced this album, Wilson's vision would have been compromised and she wouldn't have blossomed into the supremely confident bandleader that took the stage at Chicago's Symphony Center Friday night.
With the crowd showering affection upon Wilson and her tight five-piece band, she tore into "Run The Voodoo Down", a rework of "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" with Wilson-penned lyrics about damnation and doom. Bassist/musical director Lonnie Plaxico and drummer Lionel Cordew anchored the rhythm down so well you could set your watch to the downbeat. Percussionist Jeffery Haynes and guitarist Marvin Sewell took the audience into a sonic trip through the Bayou Country one only sees in comic books and midnight horror movies. "Right Here, Right Now" and "Resurrection Blues (Tutu)" were showcases for Sewell and the deft piano playing of George Colligan, who seemed to be pulling notes out of nowhere.
A beautiful slide solo by Sewell bridged the gap between "Right Here, Right Now" and an achingly beautiful cover of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time". Wilson was in fine voice here; her phrasing of the lyrics gave the song a deeper sense of longing and regret.
Three new songs were introduced at this show. Of the three the last song, a socially conscious blues where Wilson sang about getting a "slice of justice" and "a box of reparation" (bringing the house down when she added the lyric "I don't want the little one, bring me the big one") was the most fully realized of the three and seemed to energize the band even more. She ended the concert with her "New Moon Daughter" paean to orgasm, "A Little Warm Death". Colligan's piano work seemed to mimic the orgasmic process, building to a crescendo, but in no hurry to rush things.
The crowd was left wanting more, the sign of a beautiful performance.