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JAZZ

The Cool Gets Reborn

Cassandra Wilson combines superlative talent and the spirit of Miles Davis to sing like no one else.

May 09, 1999|GENE SEYMOUR | Gene Seymour is jazz and film critic at Newsday

After the release four years ago of "New Moon Daughter," the second of two Blue Note albums that propelled Cassandra Wilson from the margins of cultdom to jazz superstar / franchise status, I crawled out on what I thought was a very thin limb and proclaimed that any search for the Next Miles Davis--prohibitive, theoretical or otherwise--should end as of now.

The cool tone, mercurial glamour, taut blue phraseology and tender-tough mystique we all thought we'd lost when the Prince of Darkness checked out in 1991 seemed on "New Moon Daughter" to have found a new host in Wilson, who, up until that time, was merely regarded by many critics, musicians and civilians as the most prominent jazz vocalist of her generation.

I was tempted to hedge my presumption at the time because, after all, singers are only compared with other singers, trumpeters with other trumpeters, saxes with other saxes and so forth. But in Miles' famous 1950s interview with Nat Hentoff, he gives one of the most perceptive and empathetic breakdowns of Billie Holiday's singing, especially at a time when the consensus was that Lady Day Had Lost It:

"I'd rather hear her now. . . . She still has control, probably more control now than then. . . . What I like about Billie is that she sings it just the way she hears it and that's usually the way best suited for her. . . . She sings way behind the beat and then she brings it up--hitting right on the beat."

All of which can be applied to Davis' singing and Wilson's playing. Indeed, Holiday's flair for elemental dramatic tension found its purest extension in Davis; Wilson, more than any horn player alive, is picking up where Miles left off.

Since you asked, yes, there were some who thought I was crazy. As things turned out, I wasn't on that limb by myself.

In December 1997, Wilson assembled an appropriately eclectic group to perform music by and related to Miles Davis for New York's Jazz at Lincoln Center concert series. On one side of the Alice Tully Hall stage there was a string orchestra featuring violinist Regina Carter; on the other, a small combo with pianist Rodney Kendrick and bassist Dave Holland among others.

The results were about as fascinating and erratic as one would expect. But just as Davis' plaintive, lyrical tone remained a unifying constant through each of his epochal transformations, Wilson's sultry, espresso voice kept the disparate elements of her homage from scattering like spilled ball bearings. Whatever the varying responses to Wilson's live experiment, it whetted people's appetites for a Miles-related album.

"Traveling Miles" (Blue Note), released this spring, doesn't have a string orchestra, but it does have Carter, Holland and Kendrick making guest appearances. (Others passing through include guitarist Pat Metheny, Stefon Harris on vibraphone and her old friends Steve Coleman on saxophone and Olu Dara on cornet.) There are pieces of Davis' repertoire scattered on the playlist, including "Someday My Prince Will Come," "Seven Steps," "Time After Time," and "Tutu" (here called "Resurrection Blues").

There are also several Wilson originals, including the title track and "Right Here, Right Now," that are directly inspired by Davis' spirit. Each track is seasoned with Wilson's patented mix of exotic percussion and unusual string combinations.

"Traveling Miles" is a former No. 1 album on the Billboard jazz charts. It also captures the assurance and enthusiasm Wilson, 43, has been bringing to her live performances over the last few years. (She performs Tuesday at the Wiltern Theatre.)

Channeling Davis' spirit was just one of the things she talked about during a break in her hectic touring schedule.

Question: Was there a time during the making of this album when you worried about the reaction? You know, "Just what jazz needs. Another homage to a dead guy!"

Answer: Well, what I say to people is that [Miles] is not a dead guy.

Q: Thank you!

A: He died . . . for a moment. [laughs] But he's around. I mean, who else could be orchestrating this?

Q: How did this all start? Was it your subconscious telling you, "Miles, Miles, Miles . . ."?

A: It is strange. I was performing "Tutu" long before the [Lincoln Center] project even came up. And I wrote "Traveling Miles" about four, five years ago. I don't think this project was always in the back of my mind. But you know it's hard to keep up with what's happening inside. [laughs] I pretty much let it go on its own.

Q: One of the things that makes this different from other Miles tribute albums is that it favors the later stuff, like "Tutu" and "Time After Time," which most other homages don't go near.

A: Yeah, I've always been a big defender of the last part of Miles Davis' career, and I think choosing those [pieces] was a way of showing that it parallels my own philosophy toward choosing music. We have the same attitude toward contemporary pop.

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