With her 1993 recording Blue Light 'Til Dawn, Cassandra Wilson changed the course of jazz. Until then, most jazz was either traditional, experimental or a fusion of jazz and pop. Wilson showed that it could be all three by blending jazz and Delta blues and applying her sound to a repertoire that ranged from blues and jazz standards to classic rock. The recording was a landmark commercial and artistic success. Since then, a lot of boundaries have fallen, and musicians feel more comfortable playing what's in their hearts and heads rather than taking sides in an academic argument.
Never one to rest on her laurels, Wilson has continued to develop and broaden her sound with each new disc. Her latest, Silver Pony (Blue Note Records), will be released on Nov. 9. She took a minute or two to field some questions from The Root about the recording, her work with John Legend and her upcoming tour with Prince.
The Root: Your last recording, Loverly (2008), was a collection of jazz standards. How did you transition from that disc to Silver Pony, and why are some of the songs recorded live?
Cassandra Wilson: A few of these songs were in our repertoire with the group that performed on that recording, but as the new group came together, we began to pick and choose new songs. We just played them in the studio and some worked; some will never see the light of day. (Laughs.) We were really having a good time performing them, so we decided to put some of the songs in front of an audience, just to see what would happen.
TR: How did your collaboration with John Legend on the song "Watch the Sunrise" come about?
CW: Happenstance. Some of our friends overlap, and John conveyed a message that he had a song for me. He was a big fan of New Moon Daughter [Wilson's 1995 opus]. I was shocked and flattered, but when I met him, he was really humble.
TR: You're on Prince's "Welcome 2 America" Tour. How did that happen?
CW: He came to see me a few years ago when I played the Jazz Cafe in London and was kind enough to chat after the show. He's a beautiful spirit, full of charm and grace. As for being invited to join Prince on the "Welcome 2 America" Tour, I'm tickled purple!
TR: You're from Mississippi. Isn't some of that the music you heard growing up? I would imagine you heard a lot of blues, both urban and rural.
CW: A little, but not really. It wasn't something that we listened to a lot at home. We listened to what was considered more cultivated music. It wasn't until later when I was able to investigate my roots that I heard a lot of blues.
TR: How did "40 Days and 40 Nights" become part of the song list on Silver Pony?
TR: So the same schism that permeates our community now between urban and rural — I mean, why is "country" an epithet? — was present even down South when you were growing up? Those biases are sturdy.
CW: Yes, definitely. I got a lot of that when I did Blue Light 'Til Dawn. There was a great resistance. People said I was turning away from something more sophisticated for something less.
TR: I liked your Facebook post on Super Bowl Sunday about the New Orleans Saints and what their win meant for their fans and the city. Are you still living in New Orleans?
CW: I live everywhere, or at least it feels that way. We have the place in New Orleans, Jackson [Miss.], Woodstock [N.Y.], and we just got the apartment back in New York City. I haven't spent more than two weeks in one place in a long time. It's hard to find your center when you live like that; you have to have a different anchor. But I feel a connection to each place.
TR: Do you spend much time on the Internet?
CW: I use as many social networking vehicles as possible to connect with people. It's important, though sometimes you have to tell people to step off. I had to do that with someone when the discussion of the Park51 project turned heated. It's good to do sometimes, clear your space.
TR: What are you listening to these days?
CW: Abbey [Lincoln], some Billie [Holiday], too. There are some singers that I'm constantly learning from. I'm always finding new elements that draw me to their music. Right now it seems that I'm listening to their phrasing a lot. When they sing, certain words pop out of a song in a unique way.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.