Looking back (well, actually, listening back) Cassandra Wilson’s Blue Light Til Dawn is one of the signal records of the ’90s. Previously, Wilson had experimented with styles from revivalist (Blue Skies cast her as a latter day Sarah Vaughan) to convoluted jazz funk (Jump World). On Blue Light she settled into a musical sweet spot. She framed her devil’s food-rich contralto with acoustic guitars and lots of percussion (hand drums are more central than snares and cymbals) plus the odd fiddle and accordion. She delivered jazz standards (“You Don’t Know What Love Is”) alongside covers of pop-era hits (by Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Ann Peebles); she tunneled down into Robert Johnson’s blues and tossed in her own originals. And though the record was a considerable success by jazz standards, it may be more important that you can hear its tone and repertoire echoed in the work of any number of singers including multi-million seller, multi-Grammy winner Nora Jones. (Jones comes off as a wide-eyed kid to Wilson’s world-wise woman, and her cache is much narrower, but the aesthetic link is unmistakable even if you don’t know that producer Craig Street guided both Wilson’s and Jones’ Blue Note debuts.)
This isn’t to say that the Blue Light approach hasn’t continued to serve Wilson herself well. She’s changed the shades and angles, but she’s worked in variations of that same light for most of the last 10 years, including on the new and recommended Glamoured. As always, her originals are generally good, though she’s not much of a melodist and can lean too heavily on cliché; but at best her music is rapturous. She tenderly offers Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” and Sting’s “Fragile,” gets frisky with Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” and friskier with her original “I Want More.” “Honey Bee” revisits a kind of blues she’s virtually invented, songs from some imaginary hamlet where Muddy Waters grew up jamming with kin of Nigerian drum master Babatunde Olatunji.
There is a strong thread of songs here about love out of joint: the aforementioned “Crazy,” the adulterer’s anguished lament in “If Loving You Is Wrong,” the confused lover of too-young a man in her own “Sleight of Time,” the betrayed lover in “What Is It?” But to close things off, she sings Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away” with its wise but unsentimental words on finding what matters in life. It’s an apt switch in subject matter, and an apt nod to an elder jazz diva whose long and productive career, one hopes, will prove a model of Wilson’s own.
W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].