sim­ply di­vine

Cassandra Wil­son chats about avoid­ing mu­si­cal per­fec­tion, her African her­itage and a sur­pris­ing dis­cov­ery about one of the great blues stan­dards.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - R.AGE - By PETER CUL­SHAW Cassandra Wil­son’s Sil­ver Pony is re­leased by Blue Note/Warner Mu­sic Malaysia.

Up close with Cassandra Wil­son, pre­em­i­nent jazz singer of our time.

THE woman who for many peo­ple – in­clud­ing me – is the pre-em­i­nent jazz singer of our time, is telling me she thinks she is re­lated to Henry VIII. Cassandra Wil­son is wor­ried that peo­ple might think she is “out of her mind” for mak­ing the claim, but a fam­ily mem­ber has done the re­search and even had DNA tests and is con­vinced they are very dis­tant cousins.

She has spent time since her dis­cov­ery re­search­ing the Tu­dors, and also thinks the New Or­leans stan­dard St James In­fir­mary – a ver­sion of which is on her new al­bum, Sil­ver Pony – refers to the old St James’s Hos­pi­tal for lep­ers in London.

“St James’s Palace is now on that site – built by Henry VIII. So a song ev­ery­one thought was a New Or­leans tra­di­tional stan­dard is based on an old English folk song.”

The other, more ob­vi­ous part of the jazz singer’s her­itage is an African one. Al­though brought up a Pres­by­te­rian in Jack­son, Mis­sis­sippi she has be­come a Yoruba pri­est­ess, fol­low­ing the spir­i­tual path of her West African fore­bears.

“I’m a Pri­est­ess of Oshun, the de­ity of mu­sic and rivers.”

There is cer­tainly a depth to Cassandra Wil­son’s mu­sic and her rich, emo­tive con­tralto voice sug­gests some pow­er­ful roots are be­ing drawn on. Now 55, she is at the peak of her pow­ers, win­ning her sec­ond Grammy award last year. Her jazz DNA stands in lin­eage from Bil­lie Hol­i­day to her men­tor Abbey Lin­coln and runs counter to the Peggy Lee pop-jazz line be­ing mined by the likes of No­rah Jones and Diane Krall.

Not that she is snob­bish (un­like many jazz buffs) about the likes of Jones, who is on the same Blue Note la­bel.

“What she does is amaz­ing and won­der­ful – and a great thing for the la­bel. But I wouldn’t want to change places with her. I much pre­fer to be un­der the radar: it gives you more free­dom.”

Wil­son’s ver­sion of be­ing “un­der the radar” is still fairly high-pro­file. Her break­through al­bum of 1995, New Moon Daugh­ter, sold 250,000 copies and won her her first Grammy. What has de­fined her work through­out her 30-year ca­reer has been a mis­sion to bring other kinds of mu­sic – pop, rock, soul, blues and gospel – into the her­met­i­cally sealed world of jazz. Her 1990s al­bums were no­table for the rich va­ri­ety of cov­ers from Hank Wil­liams to Joni Mitchell and even a jazz re­work­ing of the Mon­kees hit Last Train to Clarksville.

“I was brought up on both the Bea­tles and Miles Davis – it feels nat­u­ral to do a big range of tunes.”

Her new al­bum in­cludes a Len­non-McCart­ney ev­er­green, Black­bird, and a Ste­vie Won­der tune, If It’s Magic, as well as a ver­sion of the Char­lie Pat­ton blues clas­sic Pony Blues. “Not many peo­ple have cov­ered him. Peo­ple

know a lit­tle of Robert John­son, and they look at him as be­ing the fa­ther of the Delta Blues, but Char­lie was the real pi­o­neer.”

Half of Sil­ver Pony was recorded live on her tour of Europe last year, the other half at Piety Stu­dios in New Or­leans, a city she lived in at the out­set of her ca­reer in the mid- 1970s. “I re­mem­ber ev­ery­where you looked, you would hear mu­sic. The French Quar­ter was so vi­brant.”

A par­tic­u­lar favourite joint was the great pi­anist Pro­fes­sor Long­hair’s in­fa­mous club, Tip­itina’s. “I’ve never wit­nessed any­thing like that scene. It was so juicy and rich – New Or­leans at its best.” Af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, though, she says wist­fully, the city isn’t the same, “A lot of those street mu­si­cians haven’t come back be­cause there is sim­ply nowhere for them to come back to.”

Sil­ver Pony is an al­bum filled with nostal­gia. The cover photo comes from a for­ma­tive child­hood ex­pe­ri­ence for Wil­son.

“A man came around my neigh­bour­hood in Jack­son with a pony and cam­era, and you could pay to get your pic­ture taken.”

Her broth­ers de­clined, but the young Wil­son longed to have a go and her mother hes­i­tated be­fore re­lent­ing.

“I’m happy that she let me ride the pony. I was fear­less, and I guess she wanted to en­cour­age that.”

She spent a lot of time look­ing af­ter her mother, who had Alzheimer’s and who died last year. The al­bum is a kind of me­mo­rial to her spirit.

Wil­son also lost her men­tor and friend, the jazz singer Abbey Lin­coln, who died last Au­gust.

“You get a lot from an artiste like that just be­ing in the same room, lis­ten­ing to her and watch­ing her. I learnt a great deal: how to ap­proach mu­sic and how to re­ally in­habit a song. I saw her four days be­fore she passed away. Even then I felt she was teach­ing me.”

Wil­son has con­tin­u­ally tried to plug into his­tory. In the 1980s, she lived in the same apart­ment block in Har­lem that had once been home to such lu­mi­nar­ies as Count Basie and Lena Horne.

“The apart­ments had a re­ally pow­er­ful vibe,” she says. The vibe, in both her home and stu­dio life, is “the most im­por­tant thing.”

Al­though she has recorded with Wyn­ton Marsalis as lead singer on his Blood On The Fields Or­a­to­rio, she has no time for his purist ap­proach or be­lief that jazz is “Amer­ica’s clas­si­cal mu­sic.”

“I love Euro­pean clas­si­cal mu­sic, but his ap­proach is us­ing some­one else’s val­ues to gauge who you are.”

When I com­ment that the gui­tar part on her ver­sion of St James’ In­fir­mary is way out of tune, she says: “It’s richly out of tune, beau­ti­fully out of tune. That’s the mu­sic I pray for. If it’s too in tune, it can get stale. We end up be­ing where we’ve been be­fore.” – © The Daily Tele­graph UK 2010

Free spirit: ‘I much pre­fer to be un­der the radar: it gives you more free­dom,’ says Cassandra Wil­son.

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