Wilson, Cassandra

Wilson, Cassandra
▪ 2000

      For those music lovers wondering whether American vocalist Cassandra Wilson should be considered a jazz, folk, blues, or pop singer, the answer was yes. Like singers of the Dinah Washington–Frank Sinatra era, Wilson drew from a variety of musical genres to form her repertoire. With a wide-ranging voice that one critic described as a “smoky contralto,” she performed jazz standards, folk songs, Delta blues, and pop classics as well as many original numbers that defied categorization. Her talent and versatility were showcased on the 1999 album Traveling Miles, her tribute to jazz great Miles Davis. Instead of rehashing the trumpeter's compositions, she wrote six new songs inspired by his work and invented lyrics to three of his originals. A long-awaited follow-up to her critically acclaimed album New Moon Daughter (1995), Traveling Miles confirmed Wilson's reputation as a leading figure in contemporary music.

      Wilson was born on Dec. 4, 1955, in Jackson, Miss. She began writing songs in her youth after learning basic guitar chords from her jazz guitarist father and absorbing the folk music of Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins. She graduated from Jackson (Miss.) State University with a degree in mass communications in 1981 and moved to New York City the following year. There she joined M-Base, a cooperative organization of adventurous musicians who experimented in jazz, hip-hop, rap, and funk. She was a vocalist on several albums by M-Base members. Her first two solo albums, Point of View (1986) and Days Aweigh (1987), were heavily experimental, featuring psychedelic lyrics, electric instruments, and funk and reggae rhythms. Her third album, Blue Skies (1988), was more traditional; a collection of mostly jazz standards, it became her first popular success.

      Her record company, Polygram, wanted her to record more standards, but Wilson had other ideas. Leaving Polygram for Blue Note, she continued writing her own songs and began reinterpreting works by such diverse artists as Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Young, and Delta blues legends Robert Johnson and Son House. She eschewed conventional song settings in favour of distinctive accompaniment, featuring percussion, guitar, and the occasional unjazzy instrument—harmonica, banjo, accordion, violin, or marimba. The results were impressive, commercially as well as musically. Her Blue Light 'til Dawn (1993) sold more than 400,000 copies. New Moon Daughter sold more than 650,000 copies and earned Wilson the 1997 Grammy Award for best jazz vocal performance. She also toured as a featured vocalist in Wynton Marsalis's epic cantata about slavery, Blood on the Fields, in 1997.

John Litweiler

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Universalium. 2010.

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