There’s no taking the Mississippi out of Ms Wilson

Besotted with the Monkees’ ’60s TV show, the young Cassandra Wilson was proud to call their LP containing Last Train to Clarksville her first. Three decades later she derailed that song’s frothy pop, stripping it back to some re-imagined version of the rural blues that was spawned in her Mississippi home state a century ago.

Cassandra Wilson. This and top photo: Shane Rozario.

Wilson wasn’t the first to scrunch supposedly disparate idioms together, but she certainly did it differently by letting her southern roots surface – the roots where her great-grandmother was the daughter of slaves. As a girl she learned classical piano, and when her musician father wouldn’t teach her guitar, she taught herself. She played folk gigs while gaining a degree in mass communications, and in the 1980s she moved her head to jazz and her body to New York (where she resided in the same apartment that had previously hosted Count Basie and Lena Horne). There she joined a collective called M-Base, which loosely combined funk and free improvisation.

Her soul never left Mississippi, however, and by the ’90s she was carving her own niche, deploying the understated rhythms and resophonic guitars of rural blues, through which swirled her chocolate contralto voice, melting across melodies and transforming songs.

Photo: Mark Seliger.

“I think people tend to forget what jazz was like at the beginning,” she told The New York Times. “It’s not a form of music that came out canonised and etched in stone. It comes from people absorbing what they live… Billie Holiday and even Charlie Parker interpreted the popular music of the time. I don’t see any difference between that and what I’m doing.”

She’d already done it on 1993’s Blue Light ‘Til Dawn, with jazz standards nestling among originals, Robert Johnson blues classics and songs by Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison. Then came 1995’s New Moon Daughter, which you knew was special within seconds. Just the foreboding implicit in Lonnie Plaxico’s double bass ostinato on Strange Fruit was enough, decorated by sharp-edged glints of cornet and guitar, the latter proclaiming the blues implications of the ballad that defined Billie Holiday more than any other. Yet Wilson instinctively knew not to emulate her hero; to find her own way into this harrowing account of lynchings in the “gallant South”.

Surely, though, Strange Fruit fell from a different musical universe to U2’s Love is Blind? Not to Wilson. Nor Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, which she barely murmurs in your ear over Kevin Breit’s guitar harmonics. Her gripping reading of Son House’s Death Letter, meanwhile, is a declaration that early blues should not just be some unhip cousin of bebop, hip hop or funk, but an ongoing force in contemporary African American musical literature.

Even Skylark could be dislodged from its perch as a timeless jazz ballad by having Gib Wharton’s pedal steel guitar give it a country fringe as well as a veil of tears. Then she tugs Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry away from country towards R&B, thereby tying a bow in the bond between black and white Americana. With her sonic conception so complete, Wilson’s originals slot right in as less familiar stop-offs on the journey; the pick of them, A Little Warm Death, lit up by Charlie Burnham’s violin.

After Blue Moon Daughter whatever she chose to place in the shadow of her voice she made her own, and since the ’90s that voice has darkened further, the timbre now as lavish as a cello’s.

“I’m always trying to get out of the box,” she once told me. “I think there are boxes that are created for us once we begin to do something well. There’s a tendency in music for people to expect the musicians to repeat the same thing over and over again. But it becomes formulaic.”

Wilson avoided that: avoided becoming a cloned jazz singer, and then avoided becoming a pastiche of herself. Eventually the pull of the south was too great, and she left New York to live once more in the genial surrounds of Mississippi.

New Moon Daughter streams on Apple Music and Spotify; on disc from Birdland Records.