A review of Cassandra Wilson’s Thunderbird

Despite Wilson’s singing, which is always expressive, never bland, I thought there was something calculated and unyielding, something inexpressive, about the music. The more I listen to the music, the better I can hear it—but I think there is often a point at which a singer begins to experiment with different kinds of music for the sake of experiment, so she will not become stale, and the fit is not always a natural one.

By Daniel Garrett

Cassandra Wilson
Thunderbird
Produced by T-Bone Burnett
Co-produced by Keefus Ciancia
Blue Note Records, 2006

There is voice, acoustic bass, drums, and “programming,” resulting in unusual rhythms and sound effects—like a blend of funk music and country music with something else—in Cassandra Wilson’s song “Go to Mexico,” a song in which Wilson’s contemplative, dry voice is welcoming: one hears the blues and gospel in her voice, and the effect is to make her seem less like a chanteuse and more like a woman griot. With tone as much as phrasing, and with tone more than exclamations or lyrics, Wilson is able to summon the intellectual and the spiritual. If you told me Cassandra Wilson was in regular contact with the ancestors—those whose living bodies are no more—I might laugh or shiver but I would not doubt it.

One hears attitude, perception, and thought more than emotion in her performance and yet she is a magnetic and unique performer. The songs I like best on her new recording Thunderbirdare “Go to Mexico,” “Easy Rider,” “Red River Valley,” “Poet,” and “Lost.”

“Easy Rider” is mellow. “It Would Be So Easy” is the closest Wilson has come to dance music; and it features Marc Ribot’s guitar and Mike Elizondo’s electric bass and Keefus Ciancia’s keyboards and programming. “Red River Valley” only has Wilson’s vocal and Colin Linden’s guitar and the song sounds like a mixture of country blues and a spiritual. Wilson delivers something that seems both old and potent. Her intonation reminds me a little of Peggy Lee on “Poet,” and the lyrics—for different reasons, shallow and deep—remind me of Abbey Lincoln and Sly Stone. Cassandra Wilson resurrects bluesman Willie Dixon’s “I Want to be Loved,” a song on which Keb Mo plays guitar. “Lost,” written by Joseph Henry Burnett, sounds like a traditional ballad—elegant, sentimental, and thoughtful; and it features Wilson alone with Marc Ribot’s guitar playing.

The percussive introduction of “Strike a Match” sounds like rock music, but the song also has strings, piano, bass, and synthesizer, and it is nearly a dance track. This is musical invention, but I must admit that upon my initial hearing of Thunderbird, many of the songs left me cold, unmoved. Despite Wilson’s singing, which is always expressive, never bland, I thought there was something calculated and unyielding, something inexpressive, about the music. The more I listen to the music, the better I can hear it—but I think there is often a point at which a singer begins to experiment with different kinds of music for the sake of experiment, so she will not become stale, and the fit is not always a natural one. That may be where Cassandra Wilson is today.

Although a singular song stylist, she must contend with the competition of other singers and with herself from earlier times: her Jumpworld, She Who Weeps, Blue Light Til Dawn, New Moon Daughter, and Traveling Miles are beautiful, distinct, imaginative, and satisfying recordings. For me, Cassandra Wilson and several of Wilson’s albums are part of a pantheon of distinguished artists and their collections: among them, Anita Baker’s Giving You the Best that I Got, Rachelle Ferrell’s First Instrument, Roberta Flack’s First Take, Shirley Horn’s You Won’t Forget Me, Miki Howard’s Femme Fatale, Leela James’s A Change Is Gonna Come, Chaka Khan’s The Woman I Am, Patti Labelle’s Gems, Annie Lennox’s Diva, Abbey Lincoln’s The World Is Falling Down, Miriam Makeba’s Sangoma, Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark, Meshell Ndegeocello’s Bitter, Shara Nelson’s What Silence Knows, Sinead O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, Dianne Reeves’s Never Too Far, Diana Ross’s Take Me Higher, Sade’s Diamond Life, Nina Simone’s Baltimore, Barbra Streisand’s The Broadway Album, Tina Turner’s Private Dancer, Vanessa Williams’s The Sweetest Days, and Lizz Wright’s Dreaming Wide Awake.

Cassandra Wilson has been interpreting songs of various kinds, illuminating them from within, contributing to an awareness of the depth and variety of modern songs. She has added to the song literature with her own writing. Wilson, also, has co-written some of the songs on Thunderbird, such as “Go to Mexico,” “It Would Be So Easy,” “Poet,” and “Tarot.” In “Go to Mexico,” she sings “I believe in the here and now.” “It Would Be So Easy” is a request for the reaffirmation of love after a betrayal has occurred. “Poet” opens with the lines “When we make love we change the patterns of the weather./ When we make love we move the moon,” and also says, “When I look in your eyes everything else seems small, all because you make me a poet.” In “Tarot,” Cassandra Wilson sings, “I went to the tarot woman yesterday./ She looked at my cards and told me what they say./ In your future I see fortune and dreams fulfilled,/ but you are such a restless soul,/ and you always will (fold on hearts)…”

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox; and his commentaries on Lizz Wright, Leela James, Skye, Morrissey, Sinead O’Connor, B.B. King, Frank Sinatra, and Al Green have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett has written also about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.

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