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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1276

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Cassandra Wilson: Belly of the Sun
by George Graham

(Blue Note 35072 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/3/2002)

The question of what is jazz can be vexing to some, academic to others, and sometimes completely irrelevant to those who enjoy mixing genres. For some, jazz is anything that isn't vocal. For others jazz depends on who the artist is, and it's jazz no matter what the acknowledged jazz artist does, and for others, their view of jazz stopped at about 1960.

This week we have an album that really begs the question of what is jazz, for those who are wont to categorize. It's the remarkable new recording by acclaimed jazz singer Cassandra Wilson called Belly of the Sun.

The daughter of blues guitarist and bassist Herman Fowlkes, Cassandra Wilson was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1955. Her first instrument was piano, but she also took up guitar. She began performing professionally in 1975, and her repertoire was primarily folk, blues and R&B covers. But she moved to New York in the 1982, after spending a year in New Orleans, and there she became increasingly involved with jazz working with Steve Coleman's avant-garde and funk-influenced M-Base group, who supported Ms. Wilson on her 1985 debut release Point of View. Since then she has become one of the most critically acclaimed jazz singers, and one who has also enjoyed a degree of popularity in the genre, with her 1996 CD New Moon Daughter reaching number one on the Billboard jazz charts.

But Ms. Wilson's background and upbringing were not really in jazz, and in recent years she has gravitated toward including some rock and funk songs on her albums, and has also been moving toward a more guitar-based sound, contrasting with the tradition of women jazz vocalists singing jazz standards with a piano accompanist.

For hew new CD, which she produced herself, Ms. Wilson decided to go back to her roots, both musically and geographically -- travelling to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and setting up to record in the old abandoned train station there. She brought along her regular road band, and did a very diverse collection of songs, very few of which would be considered jazz, including compositions by Bob Dylan, Robbie Roberston, James Taylor, Jimmy Webb, as well as old blues songs by Robert Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell, and four interesting original compositions. The accompaniment is more like an acoustic blues album with conventional and resonator guitars, hand percussion and upright bass. The result is a striking recording that showcases Ms. Wilson's very classy vocals with often stark instrumentation that immediately sets this CD apart from almost anything else. The environment of the recording can definitely be heard and felt in this CD.

Ms. Wilson's band includes guitarists Marvin Sewell and Kevin Breit, bassist Mark Peterson, percussionists Jeff Haynes and Cyro Baptista. Also appearing on the CD is a young drummer named Xavyon Jamison, plus guests including 80 year old Mississippi blues pianist Boogaloo Ames, and R&B star India Irie doing supporting vocals on one track. Ms. Wilson plays guitar herself on a couple of tracks. All the musicians make interesting contributions. According to the liner notes, Ms. Wilson did not have a very specific plan for the CD, except that it should be done on the Mississippi Delta. The musicians' contributions became an important part of the direction of the CD, and the combination of the almost plaintive blues-inflected arrangements, the unconventional choices of songs, and of course, Ms. Wilson's superb voice, takes the CD into fascinating and largely uncharted waters, and there's nary a jazz standard to be found.

Leading off is a song that is about as far from the jazz world as you'll find, Robbie Robertson's The Weight, made famous by The Band. The arrangement is typical of the unique sound of the CD. With bluesy slide guitars, bluegrassy mandolin, African or Latin influenced percussion, and the kind of ambience that comes from being in an old train station, combining with Ms. Wilson's enchanting vocal, the result is quite remarkable. <<>>

Another pop song taken up by Ms. Wilson and her band is James Taylor's Only a Dream in Rio. Adding to the eclecticism is banjo accompaniment and the backing vocals that resemble a Gospel chorus. <<>>

The first of Ms. Wilson's original songs is called Justice, which is given a somewhat more electrified treatment. It's an interesting composition, but here the accompaniment is a bit too amorphous for my taste. <<>>

On the other hand, one of the more memorable of Ms. Wilson's original pieces is Just Another Parade, the track that features India Arie, who does not really contribute that much to the piece. Instead the combination of the interesting song and the band's laid back performance makes the piece notable. <<>>

Perhaps the most striking of the cover songs is Wichita Lineman the old Jimmy Webb tune made famous by Glen Campbell. Ms. Wilson and band take the song in musical directions that have probably never been pursued with this old easy-listening hit. <<>>

As close as the album gets to a jazz standard is Darkness on the Delta with the venerable blues pianist Boogaloo Ames providing the sole accompaniment. <<>>

Another fascinating track is the Cassandra Wilson original Drunk as Cooter Brown, which combines blues with Latin American and Caribbean sounds, with the bongo drums and steel drums. <<>>

My favorite of the covers on the CD is Bob Dylan's Shelter from the Storm. Ms. Wilson gives the song an entirely new twist with the distinctive acoustic guitar textures, and the harmonic alterations within the song that transform the piece sonically into a thoroughly absorbing listening experience. <<>>

During the course of the recording, Ms. Wilson and her band had to make way for a wedding party that had also reserved the Clarksdale train station where they were recording. So they moved into an old railroad boxcar and recorded a couple of tracks there, including the closing piece, Robert Johnson's Hot Tamales. The result sounds quite authentic. <<>>

Acclaimed jazz singer Cassandra Wilson has gone back to her Mississippi roots, both musically and physically for her stunning new album Belly of the Sun. The sparse bluesy arrangements, the choice of material from traditional blues to Sixties rock makes this very much a stretch to call a jazz album, and indeed some jazz purists might lament that. But in whatever category one chooses in which to place this CD -- as if that made any difference -- Belly of the Sun is a recording that is not hard to forget once you have heard it, and one you'll want to go back to many times. Its combination of fine musicianship, Ms. Wilson's superb vocals, the joy in borrowing from whatever musical tradition that seems to fit the mood, and the relaxed, down-home ambience add up to one of the finest CDs so far this year.

The album's sound quality is also high. We'll give it about an A-minus. Sometimes the rustic setting will manifest itself, but that was undermined by audio compression to make the CD competitively loud when the authenticity of the performance could have been better preserved by less processing. But overall, it does well by a good sound system.

It's the job of critics to place recordings into neat categories, presumably so listeners can focus on what they are used to hearing. But for me, it's also a joy when an artist can so effectively break free of genres, and in the process make such a fine recording as Belly of the Sun.

(c) Copyright 2002 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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