Cassandra Wilson

Cassandra Wilson

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Cassandra Wilson

Cassandra Wilson - 'Cassandra Wilson' image

Great recordings often suggest new possibilities. If these albums sound relevant decades later, it is in the light of contexts they helped change.

A remastered and expanded edition of singer Cassandra Wilson's "Blue Light 'Til Dawn," which will be released Tuesday by Blue Note/Universal Music, invites reflection on such a transformative moment. By November 1993, when the album was first released, Ms. Wilson had spent a decade in New York, having arrived from her native Jackson, Miss., by way of New Orleans. Once in New York, her full-bodied contralto voice and the unusual balance of comfort and daring she lent songs attracted attention. She fell in with a circle of adventurous musicians surrounding alto saxophonist Steve Coleman whose music blurred genres and featured layered cycles of rhythm—no easy proving ground for a vocalist, but one in which she reveled. The acclaim for her third recording, 1988's "Blue Skies," and her signing to a then-resurgent Blue Note Records suggested her as poised to become "the next jazz singer."

In 1993, what could that mean? Ms. Wilson arrived at a moment when jazz singing seemed strictly prescribed by narrow ideas about repertoire and presentation—mostly mid-20th-century standards, nearly always sung with a piano-based band.

"Blue Light 'Til Dawn" announced Ms. Wilson as her generation's authoritative voice by shattering that mold. Her vocals were complemented by spare instrumentation, often just acoustic guitars and hand percussion, and without a piano. On the album's opening track (its one bona fide standard), "You Don't Know What Love Is," Ms. Wilson might well have meant to alter the thrust of its first line away from pained romance and toward musical purpose: "You don't know what love is until you know the meaning of the blues." She followed with the first of two songs written by the Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson, who defined that form as well as anyone. Elsewhere, she sidestepped the era that begat most jazz standards to focus on the 1970s, a decade generally derided by the jazz world just then, drawing from the catalogs of singer-songwriters Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison and mining R&B hits such as "I Can't Stand the Rain." Throughout, acoustic guitars suggested folk music and country blues. The percussionists often beat out West African patterns. Yet Ms. Wilson's easygoing but tightly synchronized rapport with her collaborators and, above all, her singing marked the music as jazz.

The album set the stage for all that would follow from Ms. Wilson. Its appeal—No. 1 on Billboard's Traditional Jazz Chart, 18 months on that chart's Top 10—emboldened jazz vocalists and music labels to think more freely about repertoire. The beneficiaries of this awakening include another Blue Note success story, Norah Jones.

The August 1989 issue of Down Beat magazine quoted singer Betty Carter, Ms. Wilson's clearest influence, offering stern advice: "Cassandra definitely has to find Cassandra. She can't make it dealing with me. She has to find herself."

"Blue Light 'Til Dawn" touched listeners because it captured Ms. Wilson doing just that. She began by shaking off the perceived intimidation of a conservative mainstream. "I had put my guitar in the closet years earlier because I was afraid the 'jazz police' would come looking for it," Ms. Wilson said in a recent phone interview from the same Harlem apartment she called home in 1993.

"Craig called me out, busted me," Ms. Wilson said of Craig Street, who lived in her building. Mr. Street had produced some concerts but was doing construction work at the time. What began as casual conversations about Ms. Wilson's Blue Note debut led to Mr. Street signing on as producer. "Craig pointed out that my music had more to do with guitars than pianos," she said, "and that I shouldn't let jazz convention get in the way."

Mr. Street had Ms. Wilson sketch out each song on guitar (she didn't play guitar on the recording). He introduced her to guitarist Brandon Ross, whose continuing association with Ms. Wilson began in her living room, as he fleshed out her sketches on his instrument.

What sounded new on "Blue Light 'Til Dawn" was a synthesis of lessons learned: from Ms. Carter, about using vocal timbre and shades of pitch to lead a band; from Mr. Coleman, on hearing rhythms as chants; from Olu Dara, who grew up in Natchez, Miss., and played cornet on one track, "to honor and not hide where I'm from," Ms. Wilson said; and from Mr. Street, to just let go.

This new edition, remastered by Greg Calbi as supervised by Mr. Street, rescues a fuller, richer sonic effect from the original recording. It also suggests a process rather than a product. The three added tracks—recorded live during a 1994 European tour—include a version of Joni Mitchell's "Black Crow." Here, the half-dozen percussionists on the studio take are replaced by a quintet of instruments. Instead of Don Byron's clarinet countermelodies comes one searing electric-guitar solo from Mr. Ross. On this live version, Ms. Wilson comes off more like storyteller than singer. She veered yet further toward spoken-word delivery while performing "Black Crow" in January at Manhattan's Highline Ballroom—a preview to her "Blue Light to a New Dawn Tour," which began in Europe and continues in the U.S. beginning Saturday.

"Blue Light 'Til Dawn" represents an open door more than an endpoint for Ms. Wilson. "You can never have a first time again," she said. "I learned then, and I still believe, that jazz is my discipline but it's not my marching orders."

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Cassandra Wilson - 'Blue Light 'Til Dawn' image