Tuesday 28 May 2024

Cassandra Wilson - 'Harvest Moon'

Quite apart from a beautiful sultry voice that could turn raw molasses into honey, there are at least two ways at least in which Cassandra Wilson stands out from the crowd of female jazz singers: her quirky repertoire of songs, and the instrumentation she uses to back herself. On the album from which 'Harvest Moon' is taken, New Moon Daughter, one of a string of alluring albums she made for Blue Note around the turn of the last century, she tackles the song that many would associate with Billie Holiday, 'Strange Fruit', U2's 'Love Is Blindness', Son House's 'Death Letter', Hank Williams' 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry', and –for heaven's sake – the song that children of the Sixties would singalongaMonkees, 'Last Train To Clarksville'. In my prog-rock phase, I bought Glen Campbell's 'Wichita Lineman' as a guilty pleasure that I would never reveal to friends. Cassandra Wilson turns that Jim Webb song into something truly sublime on Belly Of The Sun.

Hitched to her voice, it's an unusual instrumentation, far more suited in my mind to her timbre and phrasing than earlier electric piano/guitar/bass/drums formats, that renders all these covers so singular and memorable. Her backing musicians use instruments like a banjo, National steel and resonator guitars, steel pans and all kinds of percussion supplements to a standard drum kit. They combine to give her music a flavour of jazz marinated in the blues and simmered in the indigenous music of her native deep South and the Caribbean.

So here's 'Harvest Moon', then, which has long been my favourite Neil Young song. Cassandra Wilson respects the melody – and anything quite so beautiful should really be sacrosanct – but breaks up the song with a long acoustic guitar intro and by slowing it down rhythmically. In the process, she makes it a little less of a love song and gives it more of the crepuscular ambience of a hot summer's evening. If the American feminist author Marge Piercy is right in titling one of her books The Moon Is Always Female, Cassandra Wilson's version contributes compelling evidence.

Were I not so much of a sentimental old fool, I might have picked her mesmerising version of Son House's poignant classic, 'Death Letter'. I'd certainly suggest it for anyone who likes their jazz is little less pretty and rather more visceral. Judging by the camera angle and the outfits on display, I'd suggest that the undated performance of the Neil Young number comes from the same Stuttgart venue in 1996. Which makes it therefore the year after New Moon Daughter was released, so the band is roughly that of the musicians used on the album. The solo bottleneck guitarist at the beginning is most likely Kevin Breit; the other guitarist, with the locks, is almost certainly Brandon Ross; the bass player appears to be Lonnie Plaxico; the percussionist is most likely Jeff Haynes and so the drummer ought to be ex-Lounge Lizard Dougie Bowne, only he appears to be black. I'm stumped. Answers please on a postcard after viewing...

These days, Cassandra Wilson has become a bit of an elder stateswoman of her genre. Neither age nor custom have staled her infinite variety, however, but she's come a long way since that young, thrusting tyro from Jackson, Mississippi, whose love of the music she shared with her father took her via New Orleans to New York, where she met another young tyro, alto saxophonist Steve Coleman. With him, she formed the influential M-Base collective that fused funk with jazz and most of what was in between. I first heard her via a stunning version of 'Baubles, Bangles And Beads' from her third studio album, Blue Skies of 1988. Then came her run of Blue Note albums that included her splendid tribute to one of her biggest influences, Miles Davis, Traveling Miles.

She once lived with her son, I've discovered, in the same apartment in Sugar Hill, Harlem, where once dwelt Count Basie, Lena Horne and the boxer, Joe Louis. Under such circumstances, I think I would have posted a notice on the front door: Please wipe your feet thoroughly to avoid eliminating traces of illustrious predecessors.

In her time, she has won two Grammys, Time magazine's nomination as 'America's best singer', honorary doctorates, a lead role in Wynton Marsalis' Pulitzer-Prize-winning Blood on the Fields, and a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Fellowship. At nearly 70 at time of writing, she could retire after a highly fulfilling career. Being a true artist, she won't. As a commentator on 'Harvest Moon' puts it, 'This is not a simple cover, this is much more than that, it's art...'

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