By Daniel Garrett
Cassandra Wilson, Another Country
featuring Fabrizio Sotti
Produced by Wilson and Sotti
Entertainment One (E One), 2012
“It’s your responsibility as a jazz musician not to adulterate, but to augment, to extend, to amplify, to reconfigure, because that’s the whole foundation, that’s the whole basis of this music, jazz…It’s dynamic and life can enter into it.”
—Cassandra Wilson to Bomb magazine (Spring 1999)
Cassandra Wilson has explored a lot of experiences, a lot of music, and that is testament to her curiosity, imagination, and intellect; and her album Another Country, created in collaboration with Fabrizio Sotti, has an elegance that is thoughtful and timeless. Cassandra Wilson’s song “Red Guitar” is painterly, poetic, its instrumentation classical and bluesy, with drumming that is precise and lively, whereas “No More Blues,” a song of determination in which misery is shown the door, is itself a light blues tune with finger-snap rhythm, a slowed-down beat with jangling assets, mellow, verging on strange. (“Just like Frank, I’m gonna do it my way,” Wilson says, an aside acknowledging Sinatra.) “O Sole Mio,” mellow, a little melancholy, has a Latin flavor; and, the Italian-language composition, a popular Neapolitan tune sung by Enrico Caruso and Mario Lanza, is here given a casually propulsive syncopation, and is pretty, possibly beautiful, followed by the meditative instrumental “Deep Blue.”
Hearing Cassandra Wilson’s Another Country, it is impossible not to think of some of her other work: Jumpworld (1990), She Who Weeps (1991), Blue Light ’Til Dawn (1993), New Moon Daughter (1996), and Traveling Miles (1999). I love the energy and expanse of vision in Jumpworld and Traveling Miles. Cassandra Wilson has been interesting for always sounding as if she is thinking, alive in and to the moment; and her taste has brought together different cultural forms. The daughter of a jazz guitarist father and schoolteacher mother, the Mississippi-born Cassandra Fowlkes (Wilson), who has lived in New Orleans and New York, grew up appreciating music rather than its labels. A student of the piano and the guitar, Cassandra learned European classical pieces as a girl, and is an admirer of folk and rock music as well as jazz and blues.
Cassandra Wilson’s early days were spent in thrall to Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Neil Young, Ellis Marsalis, Steve Coleman, and Betty Carter. Cassandra Wilson’s first solo recording was 1986’s Point of View, about which The New York Times’ critic Jon Pareles wrote, “The singer Cassandra Wilson aims for a new mixture of jazz and rock on Point of View—loose-limbed music that taps rhythmic drive and electronic timbres of rock but leaves plenty of room to improvise” (August 1, 1986); and that music was followed by 1987’s Days Aweigh, and in 1988 Blue Skies, a collection of standards that made a place for her on the cultural map. Wilson, whose music largely has been on Polygram’s JMT and Blue Note, returned to Mississippi to make 2002’s Belly of the Sun, which contained several blues songs and much of which was recorded in an old train depot. “I think a lot of jazz musicians are afraid of the blues, because there’s a certain emotional vulnerability when you get into this material,” Wilson told the Jazz Times writer Geoffrey Himes (May 2002). Yet, the blues were less a musical form or pleasure the singer had grown up with in Mississippi than a resource she sought after she became recognized as a sophisticate. Wilson has collaborated with Jean-Paul Bourelly, Regina Carter, Angelique Kidjo, John Legend, Jason Moran, and Wynton Marsalis. She still listens to Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln. Cassandra Wilson has been experimental and traditional—and now makes what can be called only Cassandra Wilson music.
On Another Country, from the recording company Entertainment One (E One), Cassandra Wilson’s musical associates are an international group, electric guitarist Fabrizio Sotti (Italy), percussionists Mino Cinelu (France) and Lekan Babalola (Nigeria), electric bassist Nicola Sorato (Italy), and accordionist Julien Labro (France). “It’s a reflective time in my life. I recently lost my mother. And when you lose your mother, it really brings you in touch with your mortality. And that stirred a lot of emotions and memories for me. And I’m becoming an elder, myself,” Cassandra Wilson told Ebony magazine’s internet site at the time of the album’s release. Then and there Wilson spoke of the roots of jazz in the deep American south, in field hollers, in the blues, and relished comparison to Zora Neale Hurston, and recalled the opportunity to discover more about Italian culture in Florence, Italy, while writing and recording music.
Cassandra Wilson’s voice is whispery through the quickly sung verses of Another Country’s “Almost Twelve,” suggesting anticipation, enthusiasm; and that song, written after getting lost in Florence, is Latin and bluesy at once. (“I cover a lot of ground and try to listen to as many different kinds of music as possible,” Wilson had told Bomb magazine’s Glenn O’Brien, for its Spring 1999 issue.) The music of Another Country’s “Passion,” which drew inspiration from viewing great Italian statuary, seems intricate, mystical, and its lyrics are given dramatic inflection. “When Will I See You Again” is ruminative too. The whole assemblage of songs has a classical quality. Has Cassandra Wilson strayed too far in the direction of thought rather than passion? In considering the Wilson collection Another Country, the magazine Downbeat’s critic Christopher Loudoun found the set “remarkably subdued” but declared that “Wilson’s slightly scorched, amber-hued voice remains inimitably stunning, but there is added depth, a heightened sense of raw honesty that mirrors the hushed splendor of Shirley Horn” (July 17, 2012).
“I saw another country in your eyes,” sings Cassandra Wilson in the song “Another Country,” which features sensuously moody bass playing and percussion. It is a reminder that, for many people, it is love more than anything else that delivers transcendence. “I’ve seen so many countries in your eyes,” Wilson amends. “Letting You Go” is an instrumental composition. In “Olomuroro,” a Yoruba folk tale (some claim it’s about nursemaid; others about a food-stealing monster), Wilson is helped by a children’s chorus, from the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (“New Orleans has a very distinctive culture…There’s a very great deal of African retention there. When you go there, you get the sense that you’re in another country,” Wilson told Ebony)—and Wilson’s voice matches the delicacy of the children.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.