Maybe it’s the recession or a touch of fin de siecle foreboding, but a lot of jazz musicians are getting mighty blue these days. Last year pianist Muhal Richard Abrams recorded “Blu Blu Blu,” his acclaimed tribute to Chicago blues giant Muddy Waters, and more recently pianist Randy Weston released “Volcano Blues,” a pan-cultural meditation on the blues that features cameo appearances by guitarist-singer Johnny Copeland. Now comes singer Cassandra Wilson with “Blue Light ‘Til Dawn,” another indigo-seeped recording that features two songs by Delta blues legend Robert Johnson.
Wilson’s husky, sensual voice has been one of the most under-exploited natural resources in jazz, and “Blue Light ‘Til Dawn” sounds as if it could remedy that problem. It’s not strictly a blues or jazz record but one that glides easily among various musical touchstones--1970s soul, Tin Pan Alley, Van Morrison, Ann Peebles--imbuing each with a spectral acoustic ambience that recalls the singer’s Deep South roots.
“I always wanted to find some way of reconnecting with the blues,” says Wilson, 34, whose eight previous albums have often been characterized by the tough urban rhythms of her adopted home of New York City. Indeed, despite having been born and reared in Jackson, Miss., Wilson was embarrassed over the years to discover that Northerners had a better knowledge of the South’s black musical heritage than she did.
The reasons for that have to do with a paradoxical fact about the blues: Despite being at the root of all African American music, it isn’t always treated with deference. Wilson recalls that while growing up in Jackson she heard almost no blues around the house even though her father, Herman B. Fowlkes, was a jazz musician.
“It was always looked at as being common,” she recalls, “music for those unfortunates who haven’t quite entered the greater society. My father was never really into blues, he didn’t really have many blues recordings. . . . He comes from a middle-class Chicago family, very pulled-up people, and he had escaped all that. He met my mother and decided to move south when everybody was moving north.”
Wilson sheepishly recalls that she first learned Delta blues by playing with whites in an Arkansas bar band called Blue John. But, after moving to New York in the mid-1980s, she fell in with the M-BASE jazz collective led by saxophonist Steve Coleman, which was busy brewing a concoction of jazz improvisation, hard-core funk rhythms and mathematically precise composition. Wilson’s early solo records for the JMT label placed her smoky dream-state vocals and metaphysical musings against this electric urban backdrop.
Then came “Blue Skies,” a 1988 album of standards on which Wilson was backed by a jazz trio. Critics went into a lather after hearing Wilson’s smoky tones caressing such songs as “Sweet Lorraine” and “Shall We Dance?” The album is by far her most successful.
Apart from its obvious commercial appeal, “Blue Skies” also stands out from Wilson’s other work because of the quality of its songs. Her own records, such as last year’s “Dance to the Drums Again,” have frequently been characterized by fine singing and playing harnessed to songs so melodically ethereal that they often evaporate on being exposed to the air.
Wilson herself professes satisfaction with those records, arguing that whatever shortcomings they contain result from limited budgets and her own insecurities. “In a way I think I’ve been hiding from myself--I’ve tended to be dependent on others up to now, particularly on men,” she says. “Steve Coleman said something that always stuck with me, that I had just as much musical sense as any of the trained musicians we worked with. But that’s a Southern thing too--women are taught not to be aggressive in a verbal way. They’re taught to be manipulative instead.”
“Blue Light ‘Til Dawn” is Wilson’s first album for Blue Note, and she originally intended it to be a collection of Southern soul music from her youth. But producer Craig Street dug deeper into Wilson’s folk and blues roots to find songs, then constructed a haunting, stark backdrop composed primarily of slide guitars and percussion.
Hence the Memphis soul classic “I Can’t Stand the Rain” becomes a slow-burning dirge delivered by boot-stomp and lonely steel guitar, while the Stylistics tune “Children of the Night” is rearranged for classical guitar and three percussionists. The Robert Johnson songs, “Hellhound on My Trail” and “Come on in My Kitchen,” are embellished by African cornet or accordion, and the title track is the kind of luxurious country-blues torch song that k.d. lang might have penned, with Wilson’s languorous moan floating on an ebb tide of pedal steel guitar.
“We always talked about the importance of getting back to those original instruments that black people dealt with first in this country,” says the singer of her work with producer Street. “I love dobros--those instruments that allow you elasticity in terms of pitch. . . . There’s a certain way I sing with that instrument that I don’t sing with the piano.”