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Off the Beaten Tracks

Jazz? Pop? Blues? Record producer Craig Street doesn't see the boundaries. And the albums he's made prove his point.

May 17, 1998|Lloyd Sachs | Lloyd Sachs is the entertainment critic of the Chicago Sun Times

As the producer of singer Cassandra Wilson's acclaimed albums "Blue Light 'Til Dawn" and "New Moon Daughter," Craig Street helped the singer erase the line dividing jazz, pop and blues with stark, boldly original textures. The albums dramatically expanded Wilson's following by bringing her husky sensuality to the fore, inspired a wave of genre-bending experiments by other notable singers and established Street as a creative force to be reckoned with.

But even with those credentials in his pocket, Street grew wary when Ry Cooder approached him outside the Ocean Way Studio in L.A. when Street was taking a break from supervising the mix of k.d. lang's 1997 album "Drag," another critical triumph for him. Cooder, who has a reputation for orneriness, was working on a soundtrack for Wim Wenders on a busy day that also saw the Rolling Stones on the premises.

"He came over and in that low growl of his said, 'You're the fellow that did that Jimmy Scott album, aren't you?' " recalled Street, who had produced the strange and wonderful Scott's "Heaven." An eerily moving, gospel-themed recording, it drew flak from purists for including songs by David Byrne and Bob Dylan alongside traditional numbers like "Wayfarin' Stranger."

"I looked up at him and answered, 'Y-yeah,' " Street said, smiling. "He's a big, imposing guy. I'm tall, but I'm thin. To my surprise, he said, 'Y'all really nailed the essence of the spiritual.' I was amazed he had heard of the record, let alone liked it. After Cassandra's albums, I knew I was onto something, but hearing that from an artist like Ry Cooder, whose music I absolutely adored, I knew I was on the right track."

Though his relationship with Wilson has reportedly derailed, Street has been right on many tracks. Having started out specializing in what he termed "unclassifiable divas"--he also produced jazz-turned-pop chanteuse Holly Cole's "Temptation," a collection of Tom Waits songs--he has produced acclaimed projects by jazz saxophonist Javon Jackson, sleepy-soulful singer-songwriter Jeb Loy Nichols and blues-rocker Chris Whitley.

Pumping up his Mileage Plus credits, the Harlem-ite recently was in Los Angeles meeting with Flea (a time conflict prevented their doing an album together), back in New York and New Jersey acting on a sudden invitation from T Bone Burnett to help produce Patti Scialfa's work-in-progress and in Austin, Texas, planning collaborations with rockers Will and Charlie Sexton and Alejandro Escovedo. He also was putting the finishing touches on albums by singer-songwriter Chocolate Genius (Marc Anthony Thompson) and confessional teen Shelby Starner.

And if that weren't enough to establish his range, he is thinking of working with Bernadette Peters. "I like her voice," he said.

Not bad for a guy who was working construction when he was hired to produce "Blue Light 'Til Dawn," having never produced a big-time record before.

Few albums have shaken convention as soundly as "Blue Light," a 1993 release that earned Wilson a Grammy nomination, and "New Moon Daughter," which arrived two years later and won a Grammy. Encouraged by Street to ignore genres and sing tunes close to her heart--in addition to a bunch close to his--she reinvented herself. And drawing from a palette including pedal steel, classical and resophonic guitars, cornet, violin and African percussion, Street helped her redefine crossing over.

Cole and the formerly torching and twanging lang signed Street up to take them deeper into pop. Encouraged to tap their natural inclination toward pop, perennial jazz hope Dianne Reeves and up-and-comer Nnenna Freelon scored with their best efforts. Longtime Wilson crony Olu Dara went from playing cornet on "Blue Light 'Til Dawn" to singing and playing guitar on his own stylistically roaming, country-blues-based gem.

"Jazz artists have always felt that they have to stay within tradition," said Blue Note honcho Bruce Lundvall. "Being able to cross genres gives them a broader palette. We are running out of standards, after all. How many times can you do 'Love for Sale'?"

"I know it sounds corny, but I never learned how to separate music, to make distinctions between genres," Street said. Whether fleshing out a sound, as he did in getting Escovedo to add accordion to cello and violin for his recent New York performance to simulate a horn section, or cutting to the bone on Whitley's "Dirt Floor" to highlight the beauty of his voice, he is a welcome reprieve from business as usual.

The quietly handsome Street radiates a cool self-containment and looks younger than his 43 years. During his recent trip to the South by Southwest music festival in Austin he moved without wasted motion in jeans jacket, jeans and a dark pullover, eyeglasses atop his head.

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