Cassandra Wilson: thunderbird (Blue Note)

cassandrawilsonSome people are acting shocked that some of the tracks on this T Bone Burnett-produced album have discernable beats, and that some of the musicians had to plug their instruments into an outlet. Supposedly this means that Wilson's abandoned what made her great. These people are obviously riding the bandwagon that started rolling with her Craig Street-produced rootsy acoustic albums, 1993's Blue Light Til Dawn or 1995's New Moon Daughter. They're eminently riveting, cherishable records, some of the best of that decade, and with Blue Note/EMI's publicity machine behind them, they vastly (and deservedly) expanded her audience.

But long before they appeared, Wilson had made her name among progressive jazz listeners with releases on the indie JMT label featuring the top players of Brooklyn's M-Base movement, which combined bebop with lots of electricity and urban-flavored grooves on the cult classics Point of View (1985) and Days Aweigh (1987) -- look for reissues on the Winter & Winter label. So really, thunderbird is Wilson getting back to her roots -- not that it sounds like she made it twenty years ago. Beats have changed since then.

Wilson has never been interested in predictability or providing comfortable listening. When she does covers, it's not nostalgia, it's recontextualization, making the old and unthreatening sound new and challenging again. Anybody who expects easy listening from her totally missed the point of the one side of her that they did become familiar with. Okay, not everybody's going to love the occasional loops, or the way the drums are sometimes high in the mix, and there's more electricity involved than on her past decade's worth of albums (on the other hand, sometimes the dominant sound is the meaty tone Reginald Veal gets from his upright bass).

Wilson's just injecting some new blood, and new life, into a sound that had gotten rather sleepy. The connection to her acoustic sound is clear on the gritty cover of Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Easy Rider," where Marc Ribot and Colin Linden trade guitar riffs so dirty you should get a tetanus shot before listening, and the restrained but dead-on drumming of Jim Keltner goads and jabs.

The intimacy Wilson's more recent fans have come to expect is most present on a transfixing duet with Linden (playing stinging slide) on the cowboy classic "Red River Valley." For her hardcore jazz fans (assuming they haven't all been scared off by now), there's another duet, this time with Ribot, on "Lost," a Burnett tune written for last year's Wim Wenders film Don't Come Knocking but sounding like an old jazz standard. Burnett's other compositional contribution, "Strike a Match," has a gritty, off-kilter, sonically colorful arrangement that suggests '90s Tom Waits getting funky. Other covers are "Closer to You" (Wallflowers) and "I Want to Be Loved" (Willie Dixon).

Is this album perfect? No. some of Wilson's four originals (all co-credited) are so lyrically stripped down that there's almost nothing there but atmosphere and attitude; the music has to carry all the weight, although that's a challenge her smoky voice and sensual phrasing are fully up to. But while "Go to Mexico" and "It Would Be So Easy" will soon be forgotten, and "Tarot" mostly functions as an upbeat (rhythmically and optimistically) closing track, "Poet" is superb -- it's what Quiet Storm would be in a world where it lived up to all the connotations of its name, although "Poet" is way too quirky for that or any radio format. And let's face it, Burnett isn't really where you go to get great beats. But his beats get the job done, and he does know roots. What it comes down to, ultimately, is that Wilson was close to being stuck in a rut, and with thunderbird she's swerved to the left to explore other territory while still retaining the talents and trademarks that have long made her distinctive. - Steve Holtje sholtje.jpg

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who recently recorded his original soundtrack to Bystander, a documentary film by John Reilly.

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