Cassandra Wilson has taken the journey that so many other artists have traveled. It’s a circular trip that always leads back home after years of self-discovery. After arriving on the New York jazz scene in 1982, Wilson felt that she had to prove herself by singing the accepted jazz standards that all of the other vocalists included in their repertoire. And then she met lifelong friends who changed her approach and her life: the members of the M-Base movement like Greg Osby, Robin Eubanks, Steve Coleman and Lonnie Plaxico, Plaxico remaining her musical director until her latest recording, Belly Of The Sun.
For the first time, Wilson wrote her own music as an adherent of M-Base. More importantly, she found that funk, rather than ballads or bebop, created the tie that bound the M-Base movement together. Thus liberated, Wilson blossomed, so to speak, as she explored vocal textures, guttural sounds, purrs and growls, pop music sentiments, and the feelings within her heart for guidance. Having recorded 3 previous Blue Note CD, Wilson burst into the public’s consciousness with her own voice, one that bends the steel of some ironclad chestnuts from the American songbook to her will, and to her pacing.
That 20-year journey has led back to where Wilson started: the Mississippi back country and the river delta. Taking her peripatetic band members to her home state, encouraged by nothing other than a notion for a new album and 2 tunes, Wilson let the spirit guide her.
After she connected with the locals of Clarksdale, Wilson put her recording engineer, Danny Koppelson, to work as he converted the town’s train station into a recording studio, complete with baffles, microphones and an isolation booth. And when Wilson’s ragtag crew was dismissed from the station for a pre-scheduled wedding, they recorded in a nearby boxcar. It’s this authenticity of effect that characterizes Belly Of The Sun,
Cassandra Wilson’s best album yet and the one on which all of the various strands of her career come together into a loosely woven fabric.
Wilson hasn’t abandoned her eclectic approach to music, though, for she covers songwriters as distinct and as different as Jimmy Webb, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Robbie Robertson and James Taylor. Seeming to capture moods instantaneously as the music proceeds, especially under the like-a-sponge absorption of Cyro Baptista and Kevin Breit, Wilson, in spite of her exterior cool, is energized. That energization is evident from the kaleidoscopic changes of texture and color that she creates through the suggestion of sonic space and through the universal sounds of the human voice, including laughs, shouts, coos and cadenced monologue.
While she was in Mississippi, Wilson’s group connected with one of the local legends, "Boogaloo" Ames, and his contributions, raw and unaffected in an anything-goes roadhouse sort of way, create some of the highlights of the album. With a bare-bones introduction, an unadorned style and a less-than-grand piano to work with, Ames provides a degree of authenticity that seems to inspire Wilson on "Darkness On The Delta," but especially on the bawdy and strolling "Rock Me Baby," which provokes knowing blues-singer laughs in the middle of the tune.
Wilson went to Mississippi with just two compositions "Justice" and "Cooter Brown." But as she absorbed the colors and conversations of the countryside, the repertoire included songs appropriate for the feel she wanted, rather than a thematic continuity related to the South. After starting the CD with contrasting adjacent tracks, Wilson gets into a groove that continues throughout its middle section during and after she sings James Taylor’s "Only A Dream In Rio." Shaping a song to her own personality, Wilson slows down "Wichita Lineman" to emphasize not only each word, but also each vowel, consonant or silibance as they swell or attain their own drama within the song’s overriding story.
Two exceptions to the Mississippi recording experience are Bob Dylan’s "Shelter From The Storm" and her own exploration of feeling after the September 11 attacks, "Just Another Parade." Both tracks were recorded in a New York studio, and Wilson teams up with singer/admirer India.Arie on "Just Another Parade," which understates the feelings following the disaster: "Yesterday’s news is tomorrow’s blues. But today I have my life."
Cassandra Wilson is one of Blue Note’s best-selling artists, and Belly Of The Sun
in particular is receiving much airplay and a high quotient of publicity. It’s well earned. This recording is the culmination of all her work the preceded most fulfilling album yet.