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A Jazz Singer?


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Cassandra Wilson, who performed last Friday at Park West and is currently riding a wave of acclaim in the wake of last year's Blue Note recording, Blue Light 'til Dawn, presents slippery questions of classification. Is she fundamentally a jazz singer who, like such revered figures as Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, takes songs from other idioms (in her case pop, blues, and country) and reinvents them with a jazz sensibility? Or is she fundamentally a pop singer who employs jazzy mannerisms (a swoop here, phrasing behind the beat there) that provide her music with a veneer of sophistication and artistry? Is she both? Or is she something else altogether?

Such questions may, of course, seem academic. The point of music, after all, is not to classify but to experience. Classification, it might be argued, should be left to biologists and lawyers. If the music moves you, what difference does it make what label is attached to it? But questions of classification necessarily arise as soon as one moves beyond direct experience and toward evaluation. Determining whether something is good requires first determining what it purports to be. Chicken, after all, cannot fairly be faulted for not being steak.

What, then, was Wilson's Park West performance, in which she and her five-piece band (drummer, miscellaneous percussionist, acoustic bassist, guitarist, and a multiinstrumentalist who played violin, mandolin, and harmonica) played a set featuring Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey," Robert Johnson's "Come On in My Kitchen" and "Hellhound on My Trail," Hank Williams's "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," and a smattering of originals? Was it jazz, pop, or something else altogether?

Judging by the introduction she received from master of ceremonies Neil Tesser, one of the hosts of WBEZ's Jazz Forum and a frequent contributor to these pages, one might well have drawn the conclusion that Wilson is a jazz singer. In his brief remarks Tesser invoked both Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter and suggested that Wilson may be her generation's most talented exponent of the form. Such an introduction, while obviously intended to cast Wilson in a positive light, may actually have done her a disservice, creating expectations in the minds of some listeners that her set failed to fulfill. What does it mean to call someone a "jazz singer"? The definition is, I suggest, relatively simple: a jazz musician whose instrument happens to be her voice. If that's so, then Wilson's concert was simply a failure.

If jazz is a music of melodic and harmonic invention--of, to use the critic Whitney Balliett's memorable phrase, the "sound of surprise"--then Wilson's performance never got off the ground; there wasn't one surprise in the entire set. While her material and her phrasing were often distinctive, she never offered the opportunity to hear one note go one way and the next note another, to respond with a gasp of delight, and to realize that what one had just heard was both absolutely unexpected and absolutely right. If jazz is a music of rhythmic playfulness and suppleness, then she was deficient. Her music was rhythmically charged, but with a steady groove (usually at a medium tempo) rather than the rise and fall, the tension and release, that underlie so much of jazz. Finally, if jazz is a music of interplay, in which the playing of the whole group is greater than the sum of its parts, Wilson's performance fell flat. While she occasionally gave the appearance of such interplay (stepping toward her guitarist and mugging, for example), her show lacked the back and forth of genuine musical interaction. In short her performance at Park West had none of the sense of musical adventure that distinguishes the best jazz.

All of this, though, may well be off the mark, and even unfair, if Wilson (at least in her current musical incarnation) is not aspiring to be a jazz singer at all. And that, despite the context in which Tesser's introduction appeared to place her, may well be the case. If so, what are we left with? A singer whose music is at its best more daring and sensual than most popular music, but at its worst more contrived and less emotionally engaging. And, judging from her appearance at Park West, a singer who has both strengths and limitations as a live performer.

Wilson's strengths as a singer are many, though they often correspond directly with her limitations. Her song selection is wonderfully eclectic, but her movement from genre to genre, with its implicit suggestion that these various forms have more in common than is often recognized, is much more daring than any of her selections. If one is going to do only a single country song, why make it one as overworked as "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," no matter how achingly gorgeous a song that may be? And some of her treatments seem ill-considered: while Robert Johnson's "Come On in My Kitchen" received a convincingly sensual reading in her hands, his terrifying "Hellhound on My Trail" came off, incongruously, as sultry.

Wilson's singing is rarely less than impressive, but it often fails to persuade. She possesses a rich, warm voice, one that moves effortlessly from dark to darker, but she often uses it in ways that seem more mannered than moving. On "Tupelo Honey," singer, song, and style came together seamlessly. On many songs, though, her singing seemed to be a collection of striking effects that failed to offer emotional resonance. Her stage manner, too, represented an odd and ultimately disconcerting mix of the striking and the disconnected. She rarely seemed at home onstage. Often she would wander about aimlessly. And her remarks between songs frequently seemed forced and brittle.

At this point in her career, Wilson falls between the cracks. Not as musically adventurous as the best jazz, she is more adventurous than much pop. But much of her music lacks the emotional immediacy and power that distinguishes the best pop. She is, then, in the curious position of appealing to those who like jazzy effects without the deeper challenges and rewards of the best jazz, and those who like a measure of daring and sensuality without the harder-hitting emotional impact of the best pop. Judging from the size, diversity, and responsiveness of the Park West crowd (and the success of Blue Light 'til Dawn), that may not be such a bad position to occupy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Phil Onofrio.

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