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Cassandra Wilson Jazzes It Up

Last Saturday, Cassandra Wilson performed old favorites as well as songs from her newest album, Thunderbird, at the Berklee Performance Center. A perennial critics’ favorite, Wilson has been featured in Ken Burns’ PBS series “Jazz” as one of the most promising artists of her generation. But perhaps her most impressive accolade has been from Time Magazine, which named her “America’s Best Singer” in any genre, and she did not disappoint her fans in Boston last week.

Wilson’s accompanying band in Boston was Gaia, and the band started the evening with a set that had the distinct sounds of jazz but clearly displayed influences from blues, funk and world music. Founded in 1998, the trio was helmed by Gr‚goire Maret, who took center stage and captivated the audience with his virtuosity on the harmonica. Supporting him were Gene Lake, the drummer, and Frederico Pena, Gaia’s multi-tasking keyboard player.

After a five-minute intermission after Gaia’s set, Wilson took the stage and proceeded to delight the audience with a style that is all her own. She worked magic with her lush and honeyed vocals, and sang favorites from her older albums including the Grammy-winning New Moon Daughter. Her sensual and deeply soulful vocals called to mind the tradition of great jazz vocalists like Billie Holiday.

Yet, Wilson is not your traditional jazz vocalist. With no piano to support her voice with chords, she emphasized acoustic and electric guitars, not traditional jazz instruments such as brass, giving a bluesy folk vibe to her music. Almost every song featured a harmonica solo by Maret, and she was keen to share the spotlight with Gaia. Wilson had a delicious chemistry with the band and during the performance, remarked she was having such a good time onstage that she nearly forgot the audience was there.

Within each song, one could hear the co-existence of jazz, blues, country and almost everything else. In particular, “I Want to Be Loved,” a single from Thunderbird originally written by Willie Dixon, a well-known blues bassist and songwriter from the 1950s who was born in Mississippi and established in Chicago, reflected her own Mississippi roots and Southern influences. Born in 1955 in Jackson, Mississippi, Wilson has always said that she is a Mississippi girl at heart.

Her interpretation of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” from her album, Traveling Miles, was a crowd-pleaser, and she got the crowd clapping with “Go to Mexico,” which had a strong pop tune. During the show, Wilson constantly kept up a repartee with her audience, which was comprised of fans but also a number of Berklee students. To the aspiring musicians, she talked about the need for musicians to stay true to themselves and not to be pulled in different directions by the music industry. It’s not always pleasant, she said, adding, “That’s why it’s called an industry.” And more than anything else, Wilson stayed true to herself and provided her fans with a truly enjoyable evening.

October 3, 2006
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