Only the most seasoned musical veterans can claim to have been releasing successful albums for more than half their lives. Cassandra Wilson, two-time Grammy Award-winning jazz vocalist, joins that category this year, which marks the thirtieth year she has been active as a musician. Yet even at the age 0f 59, Wilson looks and sounds the part of a much younger artist. Her April release, Coming Forth by Day, combines the smoothly rich maturity of a well-aged contralto voice with the innovation of an artist striving to contribute to traditional jazz.
Wilson can be characterized by something of a romantic, old-style Harlem jazz club sound. Her low, deeply textured tone is at once alluring and aloof. Her understated voice clearly carries a power that remains subdued beneath a sound that is as atmospheric as a smoky piano bar. She evokes, perhaps, a romance film from bygone decades – lovers eyeing one another from across an uncrowded dance parlor, the talented singer on stage serenading the darkened room, regardless of whether anyone cares to listen.
In the 1980s, when she first began her career, Wilson was one of the originators of the “M-Base” style of jazz music. Graham Hayes, Geri Allen, Robin Eubanks and Greg Osby were part of a loose collective of African-American musicians in Brooklyn who adhered to Steve Coleman’s concept for jazz music. He lists the main elements of the M-Base approach as improvisation within structure, contemporary relevance, music as an expression of life experience, growth through creativity and philosophical broadening, and the use of non-western concepts. Much in Wilson’s music remains consistent with historic jazz, including fluidity of individual notes inside a larger musical structure, as well as typical themes and content. Yet the M-Base theory of jazz remains vitally alive in her work today. For example, she relies on a variety of different instruments, including double-reed wind instruments that are not usually employed in her type of jazz.
Jazz as a genre remains inaccessible to many who find the musical complexity to be daunting, if not outright pretentious. But Cassandra Wilson opens it up to anyone that can be drawn in by her vocals, which reflect the height of talent and experience. If nothing else, one could imagine a large number of baristas adding exponentially more class and atmosphere to coffeeshops everywhere by turning to her. Perhaps one day, two coffee drinkers will eye each other across textbooks and macchiatos, falling in love just like lovers in Harlem long ago.