Cassandra Wilson: Mississippi Queen

The grand dame of American song journeys home to record her second essential covers record

Music Features Cassandra Wilson
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Cassandra Wilson uses her voice—by turns subtle, sonorous and sweet—to tell stories, to conjure images, to wink at ironies, to jump genres and redefine jazz. For her, it’s a ministry of sorts, and she’s won all kinds of converts. Time Magazine in 2001 named her “America’s Best Singer,” and a year later—in a glamorous cover story celebrating her as an innovator—JazzTimes declared her “The New Standard.” Even on the rare occasion she records an album of standards, like her new self-produced Loverly, Wilson’s unexpected song choices (“Gone With the Wind,” “Black Orpheus,” “St. James Infirmary”), rhythmic arrangements (“rhythm is job one,” she says) and agile vocals make her work anything but standard. For the new record, she gathered an all-star roster of players—including Marvin Sewell on guitar, Jason Moran on piano, Herlin Riley on drums, Lekan Babalola on percussion and Lonnie Plaxico on bass—and sequestered them in a rented house in her hometown of Jackson, Miss. The noon-to-midnight recording sessions were so hot, they blew out the air conditioning. As Wilson intended, the blues practically seep through the album’s pores.

Paste : Why did you decide to record another album of standards, 20 years after Blue Skies, your only previous such effort?
Wilson: Just for the fun of it. I got a chance to just hang out with my friends, the musicians. And we spent six days in a house in Jackson, and we had a great time.

P : And why Jackson?
Wilson: Well, being in Mississippi in the summertime has a certain feel to it. It’s extremely hot, the air is very heavy and you have to slow down.

P : How do you think the atmosphere of those Mississippi recording sessions is captured in the final product?
Wilson: I think a lot of it is captured because there aren’t a lot of middlemen in this process. It’s fairly raw. It happens in the space of six days in one location. And one of the things I like to do is minimize the appearance of the engineer. I like to focus on the circle of the musicians. Ordinarily, when you go into a studio, the engineer is kind of set up like the Wizard of Oz. It’s like this huge booth where you have all these electronics, and you make conscious note of that as a musician—that somebody else is pulling the strings. So if you put the engineer somewhere off to the side, where folks don’t have to see all those cables and messing with strings and everything, I think musicians play differently.Things just fly. I think it’s a great way of capturing people when they’re unguarded.

P : Can you talk about how some of the songs on this album resonate for you?
Wilson: Well, “Lover Come Back To Me” was a song that my mother used to sing to me and she would just sing that part, [sings] “I remember every little thing you used to do.” That was like her mantra for some reason when I was a little girl. I remember her singing that phrase over and over again. She loved that song. “’Til There Was You”: I hadn’t heard that song in a long time. That’s like one of those hidden jewels you don’t hear a whole lot of people doing, but I heard Gloria Lynne perform it and I always thought it was a great, solid song with wonderful lyrics to work with. You know, you want a story to work with—and that one’s got a great story; “I didn’t know what was happening until I met you.” “Black Orpheus”—it’s actually “A Day in the Life of a Fool” but we all call it “Black Orpheus,” and I remember doing that song in jam session when I first came to New York, so it’s not a childhood association, but it’s definitely from my early development as an artist.

P : How do you see yourself differently from those early days of your career?
Wilson: I’m a lot more confident. More sure of what my work is as a musician. I have a clear idea of what I want to accomplish, even if it’s still an impossible task. Because you never find what you’re looking for. That’s the thing. You always get close to it—but I feel more confident about getting closer to it now. And of course I feel more grounded spiritually. I feel as if I’ve found something that works for me and something that is a large part of what I believe my work is, too, which is reclaiming jazz and defining jazz in a different way. Taking control of the definition of it, championing the beginning of it, because we didn’t start out doing Broadway standards. I find it curious when people listen to music and they say, “Well, if it’s not a jazz standard, then it’s not jazz.” No, that’s crazy.

P : One of your trademarks is to record and re-imagine songs that have been made famous by men. Would you describe this process as feminist—or womanist, to use Alice Walker’s phrase—and how intentional is that?
Wilson: I prefer womanist. Woman. A wo-man. Yeah, I was just thinking about that. You know, I’m not really conscious of this stuff… I was thinking about “St. James Infirmary,” because that’s another song that’s always been played and sung almost always from a male perspective, so the lyric changes meaning.

P : And it’s not just the lyrics, but it’s also your phrasing. On 1988’s Blue Skies, for example, your version of “Sweet Lorraine” was incredible. That song had always been a happy song—think how happy he’ll be when he marries his sweet Lorraine—but you did it almost like a dirge, like: “Lorraine is not looking forward to this wedding.”
Wilson: Lorraine is really not looking forward to it. She might be miserable. Let’s think about this. [laughs] Yeah, sometimes it can get tongue-in-cheek; I don’t know why. I have a penchant for melancholy and I also really love the double entendres that you find in blues, and I love that kind of irony.

P : So is it true that you’re living in Woodstock, N.Y. now?
Wilson: Yeah. I’ve had the house for almost 10 years, but I’ve been living in it as my main home for about three. … It’s not like Mississippi, but it kind of has a languid feel to it as well. Now, I don’t know whether that’s because of the weather or because of what people are smoking. But it’s here, and it’s one of those towns that has a lot of artists. Almost everybody here is a musician or a painter or a sculptor or a writer. So, there’s a certain freedom that you feel.

P : What keeps you motivated to continue taking on new challenges?
Wilson: It’s really for selfish reasons, I guess. I love music. I love being able to communicate with people that way. It’s always joyful for me to find new ways of expressing myself and finding new ways of communicating with other musicians. It’s just a joy. I feel really fortunate to be able to do that. I’m just happy. I’m happy to be here.

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