Billie Holiday would have been 100 years old this month (April 7th), so it is only natural that we get several tributes this year. Young British singer Rebecca Ferguson and José James both have contributed already and here comes Cassandra Wilson with her new album.
Produced by longtime Nick Cave mastermind Nick Launay, the album has some of the typical guitar-driven Wilson sound from previous work combined with some rockier elements. The only thing that puzzles me a bit here is the strange use of reverb on her voice which I don’t think is necessary and is distracting at times, becoming evident in the opener “Don’t Explain”.
T Bone Burnett and Kevin Breit, her longtime partner on guitar, define the haunting “Billie’s Blues” which comes closest to the sound of her groundbreaking “Blue Light ‘Til Dawn” album from 1993. Robby Marshall plays a dirty bass clarinet on this guitar-heavy track and he has a central role in “Crazy He Calls Me”, one of the highlights of this album. Bass clarinet and a four-piece string section shuffle along lazily, aided by Breit’s mean guitar and loops.
“You Go To My Head” has a string background as well, but is done faster than usual. It builds into a hypnotic groove towards the end. There is one track of the “Greater” Great American Songbook that I can’t stand anymore because every drunk hotel bar pianist and every fourth-rate wannabe-singer always try to nail it: “All Of Me” here lives on some funny sounding loops which makes me want to think that they’re hopefully only making fun of the tune.
A beautiful, stripped-down string-laden “The Way You Look Tonight” makes way for a rocky and noisy “Good Morning Heartache”. Cassandra delivers a very convincing and imaginative “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” which thankfully is not done as a furious romp through the song, but rather as a tender plea. She continues her gentle path on “These Foolish Things”, aided by guitar, Rhodes, loops, and Marshall’s tenor sax. A very sensuous version.
“Strange Fruit”, which she also recorded on her 1996 LP “New Moon Daughter”, captures the morbid mood with twisted turns of the strings and has a very dramatic ending with screaming guitars. But it’s the reverb again which makes the otherwise beautiful rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You” kaput. The song also features a violin with echo which works well, though.
There is one original song on the album where Cassandra wanted to try to describe the feelings of Billie Holiday when her soulmate Lester Young died: “Last Song (For Lester)” is a sweet farewell tune which sums up Cassandra’s typical sound by incorporating elements of all kinds of genres here. Jon Cowherd‘s Rhodes gives it a creamy and dreamy cushion. Guitars are waiving goodbye and the sax is bemoaning the loss.
Cassandra Wilson is playing New York’s Apollo Theater on April 10th, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on April 25th, and also the Newport Jazz Festival on August 1st.