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Pure Alchemy 

Cassandra Wilson / Courtney Pine

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Cassandra Wilson

Courtney Pine

Park West, May 17

By Peter Margasak

Innovation has always been one of jazz's most striking facets, but when it comes to mainstream America it's often fallen on deaf ears, particularly since the ascendancy of rock 'n' roll in the 50s. The situation wasn't helped much during the free-jazz movement of the 60s, when the avant-garde focused on more challenging aspirations at the expense of pure entertainment, creating a schism that hasn't been bridged since.

While bop masters like Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, and Stan Getz continued to practice their art into the early 90s, the only major change in the last three decades appealing to a popular audience was the advent of 70s fusion, the bulk of which was artistically suspect. The neoconservatism that swept mainstream jazz in the 80s--spearheaded by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and largely responsible for the music's popular resurgence--merely replicated 50s and early 60s styles with stunning technical precision and expensive Armani suits. Despite the ongoing innovations, the current climate favors either the "young lions" inspired by Marsalis or the fluffy nothingness of dippidy-dooed hacks like Kenny G and Boney James.

Though it failed to make any impact during its peak in the late 80s, Brooklyn's genre-splicing M-Base has led the way for several developments in jazz that may receive mainstream acceptance. Saxophonists Steve Coleman and Greg Osby worked hard to combine jazz's improvisational fire with the hard funk they grew up with and the hip-hop that burned its way into the black cultural consciousness. Working with these hornmen was singer Cassandra Wilson, a native of Jackson, Mississippi, with a stunningly thick alto voice. A recent concert at Park West by Wilson and British saxophonist Courtney Pine highlighted two approaches in the M-Base progeny.

Pine is a stylistic chameleon, and his latest album, the hip-hop-drenched Modern Day Jazz Stories (Antilles), has him changing yet again. In "Absolution," a duet with DJ Pogo, Pine traded sheets-of-sound note flurries on soprano sax with Pogo's rhythmically complex turntable scratching. Yet aside from one lengthy Coltrane-esque solo loaded with circular breathing and squealing harmonics, he spent most of the evening pandering to the crowd--quoting Bob Marley's "One Love," ripping off Joe Zawinul's "Mercy Mercy Mercy," and trying to get the audience to hum along with his simple sax lines. Fellow Brit saxophonist Steve Williamson and American cornetist Graham Haynes have investigated similar jazz-hip-hop fusions with more skill, imagination, and style.

The night belonged to Wilson, whose growing popularity resulted in a sold-out venue and has caused her latest record, New Moon Daughter (Blue Note), to remain at the top of the Billboard jazz chart for the last five weeks--no small feat. Wilson's numerous recordings with the M-Base posse were clearly instrumental in developing her broad-minded aesthetic, but just as important was her 1988 standards collection Blue Skies, which introduced the singer to a more mainstream audience and revealed her as a potential successor to Betty Carter. The record that marked her arrival as a major artist, however, was 1993's Blue Light 'Til Dawn, on which the singer mixed standards and original material with classic blues, including several Robert Johnson tunes. The earthy, emotionally resonant collection exploited various stringed instruments--acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin, and violin--to couch the singer's sultry, languid voice in a gentle, intuitive backing. Wilson has followed the same approach on the new record but has incorporated more pop material, including songs by U2, the Monkees, and Neil Young.

Such a move widens the potential repertoire for jazz songs. But whereas jazzers feebly covered Beatles tunes three decades ago, Wilson transforms these covers to fit her own aesthetic. Her take on U2's "Love Is Blindness" turned the song into a sumptuous evocation of luminous, primordial sorrow, sculpting a highly original, moving piece of sensual beauty. Indeed, Wilson seemed to lose herself in the music, her hips swaying languorously all throughout her performance. The new album also features five impressive original compositions.

On the surface New Moon Daughter and Blue Light 'Til Dawn reveal a bluesy folk-pop feel, and in terms of instrumentation and structure there seems to be little connection to jazz. Usually a jazz singer fronts a combo, whose members are given space to solo while the singer sits out. Wilson turns this notion on its head. Though she undeniably fronts her terrific band, her gorgeous singing, lyrical riffing, and sensual improvisations serve as another element within the group's rich mosaic. On her bouncy "A Little Warm Death" she riffed wordlessly along with percussionist Jeff Haynes, laughing and clearly enjoying what her improvising yielded. Though there weren't many solos, the heavy texture-based approach brought out subtle sonic evocations--a percussive accent here, a bit of guitar filigree there.

The space needed for such moments of musical serendipity was masterfully provided by a sympathetic band that preferred shadowy contours to bold lines. Guitarists Brandon Ross and Kevin Breit kept their strumming and picking on the soft side; when Breit tore into a slide solo on a raucous treatment of Son House's "Death Letter," it stood out in dramatic relief. Bassist Lonnie Plaxico played warm, earthy lines, their simplicity complemented by a cool elegance, while drummer Fred Elias kept the rhythm unobtrusive but steady.

When you get right down to it Cassandra Wilson hasn't only moved jazz ahead artistically, she's developed a wholly original sound. Borrowing freely from a number of styles, she and her band assimilate genres into a sensually amorphous composite marked by a remarkable degree of sensitive interplay, daring improvisation, and refined beauty. While the genre-hopping championed by the early M-Base groups often seemed awkward and unnatural--as did much of Courtney Pine's set--Wilson has picked up on the promising thread and delivered a concoction that couldn't seem more organic.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Silverman.

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