There’s nothing standard about the way Cassandra Wilson went about making her first album of standards in nearly a decade. On “Loverly,” she goes back to the roots of jazz in West African rhythms so she can chart a new path to the future.
Wilson, who has always acknowledged the blues as “a powerful influence” on her jazz singing, worked for the first time with the Nigerian-born percussionist Lekan Babalola, a priest of the Yoruban religion. During one rehearsal, when she played the blues on her guitar, he showed her its “direct connection” with the sakara rhythm of West Africa.
“Lekan has a broad knowledge of the rhythms that really are the basis for the music we play in America — West African rhythms that have been there for centuries,” said Wilson. “It’s interesting to bring these two streams back together again — the West African approach to rhythm together with how we are feeling about it as jazz musicians.”
Babalola bonded with New Orleans-born drummer Herlin Riley to come up with the churning rhythmic patterns underpinning the tunes on the album that were not straight-ahead swingers or ballads — “St. James Infirmary,” Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol’s “Caravan,” Mississippi Delta bluesman Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” and the original group improvisation “Arere,” based on an Afro-Cuban chant inspired by the Yoruban god of iron.
“It was fascinating to me to be marrying some very unusual rhythms with these standard songs,” said Wilson. “I have always placed more emphasis on rhythm than on melody and harmony ... because the tendency in Western music is to downplay the importance of rhythm.”
‘You have to start to experiment’The 52-year-old Wilson, who grew up in Jackson, Miss., is anything but your standard jazz singer. Throughout her career, she has largely eschewed the Great American Songbook, preferring to expand her repertoire to encompass traditional blues, pop, country and world music along with jazz.
Her last album, 2006’s “Thunderbird,” on which she teamed up with pop Americana producer T. Bone Burnett, offered her typical genre-bending mix of original songs as well as covers of Jakob Dylan’s “Closer to You,” the traditional cowboy song “Red River Valley” and bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Easy Rider.”
“If I did standards on every album that I did, I’d run out of ideas ... it’s kind of a dead-end situation” Wilson said, speaking by telephone from her home in Woodstock, N.Y., where she lives with her 19-year-old son. “It’s great music, yeah ... but you have to start to experiment, find your own voice and it’s very difficult to do that if you’re doing standards constantly. ... One of the most important components of jazz is that it embraces tradition but at the same time it has to move forward.”
Wilson acknowledges it’s important to have “a strong foundation” in the Great American Songbook repertoire that forms the core of the jazz vocal tradition. So about once every decade she’s released an album of standards — “Blue Skies “ (1988) and “Rendezvous” with pianist Jacky Terrasson (1997).
So Wilson was receptive last year when Blue Note label head Bruce Lundvall suggested the time was right to do an album with “her own take on standards in a very contemporary manner.”
“I think she brings the freshest take on standards of any artist I’ve heard,” said Lundvall. “She has a very distinctive sound and style and ... very unusual arrangements. ... To do an album like this and ... and reinvent herself without even trying is amazing. ... Her style is absolutely her own, nothing borrowed about it”
Lundvall has served as a mentor to Wilson since first signing her to Blue Note in 1992. For her label debut, Lundvall persuaded her to go more acoustic and perform her original songs and tunes she grew up listening to by Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison, among others. That approach resulted in her breakthrough album “Blue Light ’Til Dawn” (1993), which was followed by “New Moon Daughter” (1996) for which she won a Grammy.
The anti-divaFor “Loverly,” Lundvall suggested that she choose standards that she remembered from her youth. Wilson, who has been commuting back and forth from Woodstock to Jackson to help care for her 82-year-old mother with Alzheimer’s, chose to open the album with the bouncy “Lover Come Back to Me” — a song she remembers hearing her mother sing to her with the refrain: “I remember every little thing you used to do.”
Wilson and her longtime musical director, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, sought out musicians (such as the stylistically diverse modern pianist Jason Moran) who didn’t play standards regularly.
“I think the real story here is what the musicians are doing,” said Wilson, displaying the modesty that makes her the anti-diva. “Although I might be singing in a fairly conservative fashion, at least for the first verse, the musicians are doing some wild stuff from the get-go.”
In her producer’s role, the singer brought her band down during the hot Mississippi summer to Jackson, where she rented a house and converted its rooms into a makeshift studio.
“I love to get the musicians out of a certain comfort thing that they have ... to get them out of New York City and into a place that’s just totally different,” said Wilson. “Jackson is the biggest city in Mississippi, but you’re not that far removed from a very strong sense of rural Mississippi.”
They lived together for six days, working from noon to midnight, tossing ideas around and letting the tape roll to come up with 12 tracks that sound informal and spontaneous. On “The Very Thought of You,” a slow tempo duet with bassist Reginald Veal, Wilson briefly wanders off mike and stumbles over a word, but she felt no need to do another take.
“It is not so intellectual, it’s not so contrived,” said Wilson. “It is so much more relaxed. Sometimes the tape is rolling and they don’t even realize it, so you are able to capture those moments that are unguarded.”
For the future, Wilson has had preliminary talks with Lundvall about doing an all-blues album. She also wants to continue delving into the African roots of jazz.
“I hope to be a conduit ... to facilitate an understanding of the relationship between West African culture, particularly the Yoruba. and how much that has impacted who we are in the South, particularly in Mississippi and Louisiana,” said Wilson. “I think there’s so much we have to learn about our culture and who we were before we came here. I think that empowers you and gives you a solid sense of identity. One thing we need in order to strengthen ourselves and our community is to begin to draw those connections and to celebrate that.”