By Bill Milkowski
In 1982, Jackson, Mississippi-born Cassandra Wilson arrived in New York City following a year-long apprenticeship in New Orleans with jazz masters Ellis Marsalis, Alvin Batiste and Earl Turbinton, intent on becoming a jazz singer. She emerged a couple years later on a fertile new music scene initiated by a group of Brooklyn-based musical upstarts known as M-Base. The collective’s ringleader, saxophonist Steve Coleman, fell for the dusky timbres of Wilson’s contralto voice and quickly recruited her for M-Base performances and recordings, including his own forward-looking and influential offerings Motherland Pulse and On the Edge of Tomorrow.
As a solo artist Wilson perpetuated that M-Base aesthetic on 1986’s Point of View and 1987’s Days Aweigh before delivering a lovely standards album, Blue Skies, in 1988. (All three albums were released on the German JMT label). She further pushed the envelope in an M-Base vein on three more JMT albums as a leader and made significant contributions to 1992’s Anatomy of a Groove, the M-Base Collective’s sole recording as a large ensemble.
With the release the following year of her striking Blue Note Records debut, 1993’s critically lauded and commercially successful Blue Light ’Til Dawn, which was shaped with a renegade touch by visionary producer Craig Street, Wilson steered her career in a new direction with unique interpretations of tunes by Joni Mitchell, Robert Johnson, Van Morrison and Ann Peebles. Her 1995 follow-up, New Moon Daughter (also produced by Street), was similarly acclaimed for her signature takes on tunes by Hank Williams, Delta bluesman Son House, Hoagy Carmichael, Neil Young and The Monkees. By the end of the ’90s, Wilson was widely touted as the most important and influential jazz vocalist of her generation. She closed out the decade with a tribute to Miles Davis, 1999’s Traveling Miles, which included guest appearances by her old M-Base colleague Steve Coleman along with violinist Regina Carter and guitarist Pat Metheny.
Since the turn of the century, Wilson has released five more albums on Blue Note, including her self-produced 2002 outing Belly of the Sun (with typically Wilson-esque covers of tunes by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Mississippi Fred McDowell, James Taylor, Jimmy Webb and Bob Dylan), her 2008 self-produced return to standards on the album Loverly and her eclectic 2010 outing Silver Pony, which ranged from Charley Patton’s “Saddle Up My Pony” and Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic” to the Oscar Hammerstein/Sigmund Romberg standard “Lover Come Back to Me” and Lennon and McCartney’s “Blackbird.”