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