For three decades, the Grammy-winning, Mississippi-born vocalist/guitarist/composer Cassandra Wilson has carved a distinctive niche for herself. Her deep, almost saxophone-like contralto vocals reach from the deepest, Delta gut bucket blues to the highest avant-garde, New York jazz, propelled by Afro-diasporic rhythms. Her critically-acclaimed seventeen recordings as a leader include Blue Light Till Dawn and New Moon Daughter. And she’s lent her vivid voice to a diverse cast of stars, from Wynton Marsalis and Elvis Costello, to Angelique Kidjo and The Roots.
On her latest project, Another Country (recorded in New York, New Orleans, and Florence), Wilson wrote and co-produced ten tracks with her Italian-born guitarist and long-time collaborator, Fabrizio Sotti, percussionists Mino Cinelu from France and Nigerian Lekan Babalola; Italian bassist Nicola Sorato and French accordion virtuoso Julien Lobra.
EBONY.com talked with Ms. Wilson about how this project marks a new musical and personal plateau in her life.
EBONY: On your new CD, Another Country, you find yourself herself in new, uncharted musical and personal horizons. What inspired you to make such a poetic and personal CD?
Cassandra Wilson: It’s a reflective time in my life. I recently lost my mother. And when you lose your mother, it really brings you in touch with your mortality. And that stirred a lot of emotions and memories for me. And I’m becoming an elder, myself. So in that process, you slow down. You reflect more, and you think about the life that you lived, and you think about regret, what you would have done better, what you can do better in the future, on your way to your own transition. All of this was inside this project.
EBONY: You express those powerful emotions through a very vivid southern aesthetic; sonically and lyrically. You take the South with you wherever you go.
CW: I do. I do [laughs]. And I’ve grown more appreciative of my origins – as I get older and I travel more. And I’m so glad you recognized that. It is a very important component of my music, and my philosophy about the music that we call jazz. The roots of it are the blues, the field hollers, and all of the music that we made here, in the Deep South.
EBONY: Your music is very guitar-centric, and it exudes a kind a down-home, Zora Neale Hurston-like lyrical imagery, weaved with African and Afro-Latin rhythmic elements.
CW: Well, first of all, thanks for the comparison to Zora Neale Hurston, who was one of my heroes – I love her work. And I’m sure there’s a lot of her inside of what I do.
EBONY: On the CD, your splendid rendition of the Italian opera standard “O Sole Mio” aurally illustrates your signature synthesis of African-American and Italian folk music perfectly. How did you interpret – or, should I say “Cassandrasize” that Enrico Caruso-associated standard and make it your own?
CW: I thought it would be a good idea if we tap into Fabrizio’s history: Italian folk music. We researched the tarantella, which is an Italian folk [idiom]; and the folk music from the north of Italy. And finally, we settled on “O Sole Mio,” because Fabrizio found a way into the song. He was able to find these changes that worked for him and me. And I immediately felt I could do it.
EBONY: Another composition “Almost Twelve,” is an infectious, Afro-Brazilian-bossa nova composition that chronicles how you and your band got lost in traveling in Florence. And the lead track and single “Red Guitar,” showcases the special way you lyrically bring a song to life.
CW: “Red Guitar” happened on a tour bus. We were traveling from Monaco to Italy. And you have to go on the coastline. And you see the blue of the Mediterranean, and as you get into Italy, you see more color in the painting of the homes; the roofs are all of this gorgeous, terra-cotta shingle that they use. So I was look at my guitar while we were traveling; it was a beautiful day. The guitar spoke to me, and the song came out.
EBONY: I was very moved by the haunting track “Olomuroro,” which is based on a West African folktale about a woman who is a village wet nurse. The song features a gorgeous children’s choir, and concludes the CD on a hopeful note.
CW: The song was taught to us by [percussionist] Lekan Babalola. It’s a traditional Yoruba children’s song. And those children are from the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts [NOCCA]. The children are part of a repertory choir, between the ages of twelve and fourteen. And they’re taught to sing phonetically …
EBONY: Amazing! I thought they were African kids …
CW: They really learned that song quickly. And it was amazing how they were able to sing it better than I could! But they say that it’s easier for children to grasp languages faster. They did a brilliant job. They directed themselves. They found their own harmony. It was a great experience for me.
EBONY: You recorded a lot of this music in New Orleans, where you gigged early in your career, honing your craft. Why is New Orleans so important? How did the Crescent City help create Cassandra Wilson?
CW: New Orleans has a very distinctive culture. It’s very unique in the United States. There’s a very great deal of African retention there. When you go there, you get the sense that you’re in another country. And people also say the same thing about Mississippi. They both have strong African retentions that connect directly to the Gold Coast, Yorubaland, and Iboland. There so many rituals and idiosyncrasies that easily recognized as African retentions. That’s why people who are interested in the music and the birth of the music come to Mississippi and New Orleans, because that’s where the music was born.
EBONY: This all ties back into the concept of the CD on many levels: You found yourself in another country, learning to live without your mother. You traveled another country – Italy, and immersed yourself in that ancient, Mediterranean culture. And your artistry was nurtured in New Orleans; another country that is African and American.
CW: Yeah [Laughs]. That was beautifully said. Send that to me!