Monday, December 27, 2010

Cassandra Wilson Silver Pony 2010

A new Cassandra Wilson release is always exciting news. Wilson has been recording since 1985 and has made some of the finest modern jazz records you can find. She got her start with the M-Base collective in New York, an avant-garde jazz-funk group that featured saxophonist Steve Coleman, among others. She has a deep, throaty voice that is both sultry and expressive. Her phrasing and control are stellar. She writes some great tunes, and her covers are always unique and thoughtful, often surprising reinterpretations.

In 1988, Wilson veered off the avant-garde road to make Blue Skies, a collection of jazz standards with Wilson backed by an exceptional piano trio of Mulgrew Miller on piano, Lonnie Plaxico on bass and Terri Lyne Carrington on drums. It is quite possibly the best modern female jazz singer standards record you can find anywhere.

From there, Wilson made a few more records with M-Base and other influences and plenty of jazz credibility. She found her groove with Blue Light 'Till Dawn in 1993, the record that would define her future approach to music. A mixture of Wilson originals, eclectic pop, blues, and jazz covers with sparse, percussion-heavy, interesting arrangements that made everything she touched sound new and unique.

She's repeated that formula successfully several times with New Moon Daughter 1995, Belly Of The Sun 2002, and Glamoured 2003. Her Traveling Miles from 1999 applies much the same methodology to a Miles Davis tribute, covering songs that Miles recorded as well as originals inspired by Miles. 2008's Loverly returned to the jazz standard songbook, but with the guitar and percussion based instrumentation that is her forte. The only bump in the road was the T-Bone Burnett-produced Thunderbird 2006, which just doesn't have the spark of her other records, possibly because the all-star band is not the talented group of improvisers and like-minded jazz musicians that Wilson herself assembles for her own productions and tours.

Which brings us to Silver Pony. A mixture of mostly live and a few studio recordings, it is one of her finest efforts yet. The record features several long live takes that dig deep into the southern heat that inspired the record. Highlights include the guitar-driven blues of Saddle Up My Pony, Beneath A Silver Moon, with its Ravi Coltrane sax lead, the sultry take on Stevie Wonder's If It's Magic, the funky Forty Days And Forty Nights, and a glorious reading of McCartney's Blackbird. But I could just as easily same something wonderful about every track.

The band of Marvin Sewell (guitar), Reginald Veal (bass), Herlin Riley (drums), Jonathan Batiste (piano), and Lekan Babalola (percussion) get the chance to jam, and are never short of amazing. This is a mature singer with a crack ace band, stretching out beyond the pop styling that has both made her famous and been fodder for her detractors.

It is a fine record indeed. Very highly recommended.

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