Friday, October 7, 2011

Blue Skies


About a decade ago, I was a member of Cassandra Wilson's touring band. Not only was it a great musical experience, but it was great to have well organized tours, with nice hotels and tour buses and per diems and so forth. Furthermore, it was cool to answer the question, "Are you in a band?" with a name that, more often than not, people actually recognized. This was 1999 to 2001, when Wilson was still riding high on the success of her Blue Note albums like "Blue Light 'Til Dawn" and "New Moon Daughter". She had just released "Traveling Miles", a tribute to trumpeter Miles Davis.( This was just before Norah Jones, also on Blue Note, sold 8 million CDs of her musical equivalent of valium. Yawn........)I never got to record with Wilson, although I did appear briefly with her in "The Score", a movie featuring Robert DeNiro, Ed Norton, and Marlon Brando.(The scene is not even a minute long, and it took 14 hours of filming in Montreal. I always joke that "I had a number of spoken lines, but they were left on the cutting room floor....")

But many listeners are completely unaware of Wilson's earlier releases. Before she was signed to Blue Note, Wilson recorded 7 albums for JMT, a German based label run by producer Stefan Winter.(By the way, I always used to wonder what JMT stood for. Then I was told it stands for "JAZZ MUSIC TODAY". Hmmm, sounds German to me. Winter now calls his label "Winter and Winter" and is actually re-issuing a lot of the JMT catalog.) Much of Wilson's early work is influenced by saxophonist Steve Coleman; she was actually part of the M-Base Collective(She sings on "Sine Die", a Steve Coleman recording I used to listen to in the 90's). Although much of Wilson's more recent work is blues and pop based, Wilson's has deep roots in jazz. This is nowhere more evident on her third JMT release "Blue Skies".

This was an album I listened to a lot in the mid 90's, when I was first doing long tours.(Remember portable CD players? And remember those big books of CDs people would lug around, and somebody would always leave one on a plane or something?)I recently pulled this album out again and put it on in the car. I appreciate it even more now, for a variety of reasons. First of all, Wilson is blessed with a truly distinctive voice; one note is all you need to know it's her. Her voice is fairly low for a female voice, and it's husky, but still flexible and buoyant.(I asked Wilson if she did any vocal exercise or practice. "No, I don't really practice", she admitted." I smoke cigarettes....")

One of the hip things about "Blue Skies" is that this session, in the hands of less motivated musicians, could have easily been a forgettable "let's do standards that people love the way they expect them to be done" kind of session. However, Wilson always puts a different spin on the material; on "My One And Only Love," which most people expect to be a lovely ballad, she begins scatting the melody alone at moderate to brisk tempo. Another ballad, "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" is done as a loose waltz. "I'm Old Fashioned" is done as an up-tempo. And "Sweet Lorraine", a beautiful duet with piano master Mulgrew Miller, is interesting due to the alteration of the lyrics, sung from the point of view of a third party observer, rather than a man singing of "my Sweet Lorraine."

Mulgrew Miller
And let's not forget the band; this is some of my favorite Mulgrew Miller of all time. His solos are sparkly and inspired. Miller is a mainstream pianist, but much of his soloing here is as harmonically inventive as anyone could hope for. Mulgrew's comping is perfect throughout; on ballads like "I've Grown Accustomed To (His) Face", or bouncy medium tunes like "Shall We Dance", Miller provides stellar support. Bassist Lonnie Plaxico is also beautifully supportive. Plaxico was music director for Wilson on and off for 20 years.(Indeed, he was the one who called me for the first tour I was on.) Plaxico doesn't get much solo space, but his sound is really dark and round, and he has a nice arco(bowed) solo on "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good To You." Terri Lynne Carrington is really swinging on this CD, and her brushwork is impressive. My only complaint is the snare sound, which I believe is a mixing or mastering issue;at times it sounds a little harsh to me. But Carrington's cymbals are dry and clear, and she keeps time responsibly and maturely, but not without some occasional fiery outbursts.

Also worth noting is Wilson's scat soloing. During my tenure in her band, I felt that Wilson was reluctant to scat. Indeed, in the wrong hands, jazz scat singing can easily annoy and detract. However, Wilson sings a tasty solo on "I Didn't Know What Time It Was"; it's more instinct than theory, but Wilson's ears take her to the right notes all the way through. Furthermore, even on the expected sensitive ballads, Wilson delivers the lyrics in a personal way. Check out "Autumn Nocturne"; it's breathtaking.

Lauper, then and now

I've told this story a number of times, so I figure one more time won't hurt. When I toured the U.S. with Wilson in 2000, one of the stops was to be Carnegie Hall in New York. We were told that we would have a special guest for part of the show: 80's pop star Cyndi Lauper. Apparently, Wilson and Lauper had met somewhere and Lauper admitted that she really liked Wilson's version of "Time After Time." So Wilson invited her to be on the Carnegie Hall performance. A rehearsal was planned. Lauper showed up, looking more like a dressed down Queens soccer mom than a glitzy pop idol. and her accent was REALLY Queens (She's originally from Ozone Park). She almost sounded like Fran Drescher from "The Nanny"! So after some introductions and pleasantries, the rehearsal began. I wish I had recorded it because at one point, Wilson and Lauper tried to write a song, and kind of batted some ideas around while the band laid down a groove. It never solidified, but it was fascinating to watch two singers from vastly different worlds try to collaborate.

At one point, Lauper suggested that we do "Blue And Green", except that she would sing the melody and Cassandra Wilson would sing "Blue Skies" as a counterpoint. This was weird because "Blue And Green" is a 10 bar tune, while "Blue Skies" is a 32 bar standard. We ended up using this in the performance, and I don't know how or why this ended up working, but it worked. Again, I wish I had recorded this, because it will probably never happen again in history.

Carnegie Hall
Carnegie Hall, to many, is kind of a legendary symbol of hitting the musical big time. (The old joke: Guy standing on the street in New York asks another guy," Hey, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?" "Practice, practice, practice....") So of course my father and his wife had to come to the performance. So I was somewhat proud and excited. The house was full, the performance went well, and when Wilson announced Lauper as the special guest, the house went nuts with cheering and applause.

After the performance, my father took us to the nearby Russian Tea Room to celebrate. As we enjoyed our blueberry blintzes, my father, born in 1943 in Brooklyn, asked, "So...who was that woman who came out on stage in the middle of the show?"

"Uhh....that was Cyndi Lauper!"

"And....?"

"You know, the singer from the 80's?"

"No."

"You know, 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun'?"
"Girls...they wanna have Fu---hun....."

"Never heard of it."

"Uhhhh, OK.....I guess, for your generation..." I struggled to think,"it would be like, if somebody like, say Bob Dylan came out as a guest." I had missed my target. My father was an earlier generation. I should have said Bobby Darin.

"You wouldn't want Bob Dylan to come out and sing..." my father stated. "He's TERRIBLE. Of course, maybe if you did one of his songs with a REAL singer, and then Bob Dylan came out to get his royalty check...."

50 comments:

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  2. Back in the day when JMT became Winter and Winter, I heard that Winter had lost the rights to the JMT stuff when he did a distribution deal with some major label that ended up going sour, and that's why he started W&W.

    But perhaps that was just a rumor.

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  3. Nice post. I really like "Blue Skies" too.

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