Monday, April 13, 2009

Cassandra Wilson Goes Pop

If any contemporary vocalist bears comparison with Nina Simone, it would be Cassandra Wilson, who shares the same uncanny knack for repertoire encompassing jazz, pop, and folk. Like Simone, some of Cassandra’s most popular recordings have been pop covers she has made her own, through shrewd arrangements and her own sensitive interpretations. It is hardly surprising then, to see Wilson’s label collect eleven such reinvented pop standards in the newly released collection, Closer to You: the Pop Side.

Anthology collections do not ordinarily generate much critical notice, but Closer offers a convenient opportunity to take stock of Wilson’s impressive career. Winner of two Grammy Awards, Wilson has participated in many high profile projects, including Wynton Marsalis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Blood on the Fields. She also appeared (as a jazz vocalist) in the otherwise unmemorable film, The Score with Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando. Currently, Wilson is one of the top draws on the jazz concert circuit and regularly tops the jazz vocal charts, thanks to her shrewd mix of intriguing originals and familiar favorites, like those collected on Closer.

U2’s “Love is Blindness” is an excellent example of Wilson’s pop treatments, transforming it into a sparse, but rootsy song of yearning. What cannot be heard on Closer is how perfectly her rendition fit within its original album, the Grammy-winning New Moon Daughter. Though the following “Time After Time” is associated with Cyndi Lauper, Miles Davis recorded an instrumental jazz version. In fact, Wilson originally covered it as part of a Davis tribute album, making it a cover of cover. Regardless, it also proves remarkably well suited to her husky, seductive voice.

Probably the most surprising selection of Closer (at least for those unfamiliar with Wilson’s past CDs) will be the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville,” but she finds unexpected depth in the pop ditty. Whereas, her ethereal version of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” may well be the most familiar to listeners, appearing on New Moon and the soundtrack of Norah Jones’s My Blueberry Nights.

The high points of Closer were both drawn from Belly of the Sun, Wilson’s blues-inspired release, recorded at the source, in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The Band’s “The Weight” and Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” (better known from Glen Campbell’s recording) both have that bluesy country-rock quality that readily lends them to Wilson’s style. They are also well served by the authentic blues and roots seasonings provided by Wilson’s regular band-members, acoustic guitarist Marvin Sewell, electric guitarist Kevin Breit, and percussionists Cyro Baptista and Jeffrey Haynes.

A lot of people might be introduced to Wilson through Closer and if so, that’s great. Hopefully, they will dig deeper into her discography, because while the music of Closer is quite good, she has recorded even more haunting work, like the originals on New Moon (particularly “Solomon Sang,” “Little Warm Death” and “Find Him”) and her stirring live performance of Son House’s “Death Letter” on the Jazz Foundation of America concert benefit CD, A Great Night in Harlem. Still, Closer is a pleasant collection of music that amply demonstrates Wilson distinctive vocal style.