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The word "cool" connotes many things, but when singer Cassandra Wilson uses it to describe her musical approach, she has a specific reference in mind.
"I speak about coolness in terms of the Yoruba definition," Wilson elucidates. "It's a word that describes art and implies grace under pressure and a certain kind of approach to life. Coolness is also a very important part of the lore, in terms of African and African-American music. But the word cool and the definition that African Americans gave it have become part of our vernacular here in America."
This is no mere linguistic fascination for Wilson; the transfer and intermingling of cultures is at the crux of her aesthetic vision. At age 42 Wilson is one of the more distinctive stylists in contemporary music, artfully fusing elements of African-American tradition and popular American culture. She is the only heiress-apparent to Billie Holiday and Betty Carter; her musical concept also unapologetically bears the influence of Joni Mitchell and Cyndi Lauper.
Although she was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, Wilson's professional musical career began in New York City in the early '80s, when she recorded for JMT/Verve and contributed her husky alto to the records and performances of Abbey Lincoln, Steve Coleman, and others. If the first decade of her career was hardly a "straight-ahead" path, upon signing with Blue Note in the early '90s, she began to plot the even more idiosyncratic course set by her heart.
Reaching back to her childhood growing up with the sounds of the Delta blues, her teenage experience as a singer and guitarist in the coffeehouses around Jackson, and her long-standing love of pop music, she crafted 1993's Blue Light 'Til Dawn and 1996's New Moon Daughter. On these albums, Wilson brought her jazz sensibilities to a repertoire that included music by late bluesman Robert Johnson, folk chanteuse Joni Mitchell, and pop sensation U2, among others. This approach may have offended jazz purists, but it won her a Grammy in 1996.
Her latest venture, the recently released Traveling Miles, is a tribute to the late Miles Davis. Although the trumpeter's extensive and distinctive oeuvre is daunting for any contemporary musician to tackle, both Miles's music and persona prove to be apropos grist for Wilson's musical mill. The thing that gives the album real propulsion is the fact that Miles, in his day, was occupied with many of the same concerns that Wilson's current career focuses on: the relationship between tradition and the colloquial, the fascination with popular culture, and the consideration of audience demographics.
These similarities aside, for Wilson the project began simply as the logical next step in her introspective musical quest; Miles's music is among her earliest musical memories. Recalling her first experience with his Sketches of Spain album when she was just eight years old, Wilson says, "It had a huge impact on me. I was really obsessed with it. It was just so expansive, so wide. It's an incredible album."
Wilson responds directly to this experience with "Piper," a song she wrote specifically for Traveling Miles. With a melody derived from Miles's improvisations on "Pan Piper" from Sketches, her lyrics articulate the melancholy, airy quality of the muted trumpet. She sings wistfully: "With soulful wit and just as sleek/He completes every waking wish/From deeper sleep we travel home on his tone/With our hopes adrift/Piper play me a song."
At times her approach to this album was not quite so conceptual. For many of the tunes (especially Miles's instrumental classics, to which she added lyrics) it was a question of finding material she could feel comfortable singing. Not that she took the easy way out. "Seven Steps to Heaven" and "ESP," which became "Seven Steps" and "Never Broken" on Traveling Miles, are from Miles's musically challenging and somewhat esoteric mid-'60s period.
Describing the process by which she became acclimated to "ESP," Wilson says, "I was actually in St. Lucia and surrounded by all this imagery of water. It was there that the lyrics came to me. The first thing I had to do, though, was look at the tune instrumentally and break it down, in order to make it easy for me to play on guitar. So I found a tuning, which is something that I often do with very difficult pieces, which makes it easy to grasp the chordal structure. Out of that process came the general idea of the flowing of it."
It is, in part, this very guitar-oriented process that gives Traveling Miles, like her other two albums, its unique sound. Compositionally speaking, jazz songs are usually constructed on the piano. The fact that Wilson writes on guitar and thinks like a guitarist automatically inflects her work with the folk and rock elements that make it so distinct. This is again apparent on her own "Right Here, Right Now," with its exceedingly catchy, Indigo Girls-style guitar riff.
It is precisely this quality, the undeniable presence of "the hook" in her music, that wrinkles the noses of certain pundits. Wilson, however, is unconcerned. "There's a long tradition of using pop music in jazz," she reminds us. "I think the problem comes when people look at popular music today and they think it doesn't compare with Tin Pan Alley. I disagree."