Cassandra Wilson, 1999
So this is one of those albums that sort of creates a world unto itself. Something like how a good novel can pull you into its universe, a place that's textured and deep. Actually, maybe more like a collection of connected short stories by the same storyteller - Cassandra Wilson as Sheherazade, perhaps?
Not that these are narrative songs, really, but they all generally travel through emotional spaces over time. If you've heard Cassandra Wilson before, you know about her expressive smoky alto, her understated and studied interpretations of songs. The arrangements are stars right alongside her voice, and they are quite varied on this album, though all growing from a soil that I tend to think of as an "M-Base sound." Tempos are generally slow, as befits her voice.
The album is conceived as a tribute to Miles Davis, and I think it's far and away the best such tribute I've heard. It works well because she chooses songs that she likes from the Davis canon, without trying to be particularly comprehensive or trying to provide a profile of one of his stylistic periods. She freely adds her own lyrics to instrumental tunes; in fact, a number of the songs are her originals.
My favorite of the original songs is "Right Here, Right Now," which is expansive, meditative, and groovy all at once. "Run the Voodoo Down" is a great funk workout for the band (much shorter than Miles' original), anchored by Dave Holland's inhumanly in-the-pocket bass and her lyrics are a perfect homage to the spirit of the tune - there's even a second version of this song at the end of the album, with Anjelique Kidjo guesting. When the two singers hold those tight major seconds, letting them stretch out over the contrapuntal percolating rhythm section, it's one of the most intensely sexy things. Makes the corners of my eyes scrunch up.
"Seven Steps to Heaven" is just a bebop party, plain and simple. "Never Broken," her interpretation of "E.S.P.," retains that off-kilter unease of the original, in a very different context, which is an amazing achievement in itself.
"Time After Time" is in many ways my favorite on the album. Yep, it's that Cyndi Lauper song, covered by lots of people in the last 20 years (including Miles Davis, which is why it's here). This is the best one, hands down. I rarely essentialize, but there ya go - the best. Heartbreaking. Adding about 60 layers of meaning that you didn't think the song could possibly carry. I caught Cassandra Wilson on tour in NY once and she brought Ms. Lauper out to sing it as a duet with her- it's one of my top concert memories. Wish the song could have been twice as long, if not three times.
One of the gems in my vocal jazz collection, for sure.