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Jazz Review : A Slight, Enthusiastic Crowd Acquires a Taste for Wilson

October 01, 1994|ZAN STEWART

Despite the fact that her "Blue Lights 'Til Dawn" album has sold more than 100,000 copies and that she's being regarded as a major singer, Cassandra Wilson remains an acquired taste. Even with all the favorable press notices, the New York-based singer drew barely more than 100 people to the 500-seat Strand on Thursday night.

One reason for the slight, though quite enthusiastic, crowd could be that Wilson is an expressive, adventurous artist who defies easy categorization--there are strong flavors of blues, folk, even country and pop in her work, which has the underpinnings of an arty jazz sensibility. She seeks personal approaches to songs that don't always grab an audience and hold it.

At the Strand, Wilson favored slow tempo deliveries built on elastic rhythmic bulwarks mainly provided by bassist Lonnie Plaxico and drummer Lance Carter. At those languorous paces, the singer employed her rich, honey-colored alto and consistently put a lot of space between her phrases--which didn't always adhere to the written melody--as guitarist Brandon Ross and violinist/mandolinist Charlie Burnham dropped in colorful asides. This coming and going of the melodic basis of a song, as when she sang the classic "Skylark," created a sense of drama and tension that resulted in emotionally fluctuating, come-hither-then-stand-back interpretations.

Even Wilson's successful renditions had an air of distance about them. Still, Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey," two Robert Johnson numbers--"Hellhound on My Trail" and "Come On in My Kitchen"--and her own "Redbone" were fairly uncomplicated treatments that allowed Wilson to more effectively deliver a song's meaning.

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