People love categories. We usually want to know precisely what something is, what it should be called, and in which group it belongs. In music this is an even more marked attitude. A term has been created to indicate musicians who straddle more than one genre – e.g. "crossover" – and folks in that category are usually spoken of with suspicion and derision. One of the most misdirected, futile, and meaningless debates along these lines is the question, "What is a jazz singer?" People have strongly engrained ideas on this; like pornography, it is hard to describe but we know it when we see/hear it.... Many purists still insist on an either/or designation.
Cassandra Wilson is a singer who continues to break down categorizations and who thrives on great music from every corner of the spectrum of American song. She appeared at NCSU's Stewart Theater in a March 31 performance that was long overdue and a far cry from her last Triangle appearance, at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro in 1988, when she was a relatively unknown singer with an unconventional style. Now very well-known, she is a Grammy winner, Time Magazine's 2001 pick for America's Best Singer, and one of the best-selling artists on Blue Note – probably the most influential jazz label. She appeared with three musicians who have been the backbone of her last few recordings: Brandon Ross, guitar, Jeffrey Haynes, percussion, and Reginald Veal, bass. She grew up in Mississippi, sometimes referred to as "The Cradle of the Blues," and she assimilated that style as well as rhythm & blues, gospel, jazz, and country & western before moving to New York. This musical melting pot provides a broad canvas onto which she throws her deep, soulful expressive voice into a seemingly unrelated group of songs.
Her opening number was a microcosm of this diverse mix. Here we had an African-American "jazz" singer starting off with a song written by a Jewish artist who was vilified by his fans for "going Country." Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" is decidedly un-Dylan like and definitely as far from what you would consider a jazz tune as you can get. The superb trio set up a captivating rhythmic background that had no apparent connection to the original, and even when Wilson started singing, it still felt like it was being re-written. If you are expecting an identifiable, traditional "cover" of this and other songs, then she is not the singer for you. She will twist and turn the melodies and chord changes as she delves into how she perceives the lyrics need to be expressed. She doesn't confine this treatment to just popular or rock songs but does the same even to jazz standards associated with great singers of the past. "Them There Eyes" became one of the signature songs of Billie Holiday, but if Wilson had been singing lyrics other than the original, you would never have known what tune she and her group were performing. This is not a bad thing. Creativity often involves tearing down existing structures to achieve personal expression. Depending on the listener's own associations with particular songs, this approach may not always be agreeable; for example, Wilson's take on Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey" leaves me longing for the unadorned beauty of the original.
Wilson performed barefoot on a large rug surrounded by her exceptional band, and the whole evening had an informal down-home feel. Without disparaging the other two musicians, percussionist Jeffrey Haynes was the one who gave the most character to the unique arrangements. He used drumsticks only a few times, but he brought forth an amazing array of rhythms, textures, and timbres from his hands and the instruments. The evening proceeded without intermission with selections ranging from the Willie Nelson classic "Crazy" to heavy Mississippi Delta blues to the luscious, ethereal "Fragile" by Sting. As I listened throughout the evening, I tried to identify just what it is about this artist that is so captivating. As a singer, she is not a technician in the style of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, or even Jane Monheit, about whom I recently wrote. Wilson has a limited vocal range, and you cannot read any description of her voice without finding the words "throaty," "earthy," "deep," or even "husky." Among the unheralded aspects of her success are her incredible and unique musical arrangements and the talented musicians behind her. Combine them with Wilson's gifts as a consummate communicator of the poetry of great songs and a voice that gets into your bones, and it's no wonder she has become such a celebrated artist.