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Cassandra Wilson On JazzSet

In a public Q&A at City University of New York in late 2008, critic Gary Giddins talked with Cassandra Wilson about her background. Her father was a teacher at Jackson State College in Mississippi and a professional guitarist, and her mother taught grade school. It was a musical household, filled with vocals by Nancy Wilson, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.

From age 6, Wilson played piano, and she picked up the clarinet in school. She had determination, recalling, "I was third clarinet, last chair, [and thought], 'One day I want to get that first chair.' " In high school, she was teaching herself guitar, inspired by the folksingers Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Richie Havens and Joni Mitchell.

Wilson calls her jazz-or-folk quandary "Joni or Now's the Time?" She began to resolve it when she left Jackson State and moved to New Orleans, where she experienced the modern clarinet of Alvin Batiste and saxophonist Kidd Jordan. "It was the craziest music I had ever heard, way out," Wilson says.

Wilson studiously transcribed Charlie Parker, moved with her husband to New Jersey, met some of the established players in New York, and became involved with musical adventurers in Brooklyn who called themselves M-Base (Macro Basic Array of Structure Extemporization). As for role models, "Betty Carter was it, the woman as leader of the band." The irony is that when Carter heard Wilson's first album, Blue Skies (featuring standards and the impressive Mississippian Mulgrew Miller on piano), Carter said that the new vocalist still had to find herself.

Mississippi, home of the Delta Blues, lies at the root of Cassandra Wilson's uniqueness. Over time, that background is coming to the fore. Her voice has depth and a blur on the edges. Try the upward phrase "when he's with his Sweet Lorraine," early in "Sweet Lorraine," to hear several colors and some nice syncopation. Her music embraces the paradox between harshness ("You can mistreat me in New York City, but you can't mistreat me when I go home") and glamour. From New Moon Daughter to Belly of the Sun to Thunderbird and now Loverly, a string of her recent album titles suggests the light, flight and homecoming in her music.

Cassandra Wilson takes her time. Her voice is another instrument in the band. She invites each player to share the space. They are Marvin Sewell (from Chicago) on many guitars; pianist Jonathan Batiste from New Orleans (on Loverly, the pianist is Jason Moran); and bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Herlin Riley, a great team 20 years ago in the early Wynton Marsalis Quartet and since.

Originally recorded Sept. 26, 2008 at the Chicago Symphony Center. This story originally ran March 26, 2009.

Credits: Thanks to Jim Fahey and Rebecca Mix at Chicago Symphony Center. Recording by Chris Willis. Surround Sound mix by Duke Markos.

Copyright 2010 WBGO

Becca Pulliam, JazzSet