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Cassandra Wilson(Profile/Biography)

United States
How does a singer in her prime follow a critically acclaimed album of standards (2008’s Loverly)—a Grammy winner for Best Jazz Vocal Album that was recorded with a tight band of stellar musicians? If you‘re Cassandra Wilson, with two such awards to your credit as well as eight previous Blue Note albums, each a distinctive marker along the arc of a wildly creative and singularly successful career, the answer is this: Challenge yourself anew. Create a new band, drawn in part from the old one, invite special guests into the studio to collaborate including Ravi Coltrane and John Legend, and follow a fresh strategy, not so much drawn up as received at a moment of physical and emotional transition.

Get on a brand-new horse and ride it, so to speak. In this case, a Silver Pony—perhaps Wilson‘s most ambitious recording project to date.

Wilson‘s boldness as an artist has been reflected throughout her career. It‘s a trait she showed early on. The image on the new album's cover is drawn from a treasured family photo, of four-year-old Cassandra sitting confidently on a pony. “A man came around my neighborhood in Jackson with a pony and camera,” she recalls. “You could pay to get your picture taken.” Her brothers declined, but Cassandra was eager. Her mother hesitated—“there were certain things young ladies just didn't do,” Wilson recalls—but Cassandra seized the moment and got the picture. “I'm so happy she let me ride the pony,” she says now. “I was fearless, and I guess she wanted to encourage that in me.”

Such fearlessness now fuels Wilson‘s work. “I prepare for each recording but you can never truly prepare,” Wilson says. “Because you don‘t really know what's coming. You just place yourself in the circumstances that will allow the project to reveal itself.”

Silver Pony marks the first live tracks released by Wilson since 1991, and her first for Blue Note. Yet it‘s far more complex and rewarding than a simple live album. The project ultimately revealed itself to Wilson as a fascinating hybrid of live and studio takes, blending the power of thrilling band in action before a live audience with its deep communion sequestered in a studio. And not just any studio, Piety Street Recording, co-owned by Silver Pony co-producer, John Fischbach. “I call him the magician,” says Wilson.

“This is a band album,” Wilson says, a fact reflected by two purely instrumental tracks (“A Night in Seville” and “Silver Pony”) and through a collective vision expressed in compositions and arrangements credited to all the musicians. And it‘s a powerhouse ensemble, combining members of Wilson‘s previous working band—guitarist Marvin Sewell, drummer Herlin Riley, and percussionist Lekan Babalola—with bassist Reginald Veal (who has a history with Wilson, and an even longer one in tandem with Riley) and pianist Jonathan Batiste, the latest in a long line of New Orleans-bred piano prodigies, now studying at New York's Juilliard School. Riley and Veal also hail from the Crescent City, so “they already have a backstory,” Wilson says, “and a shared language.” The musicians revel in Wilson's approach. “Unlike many vocalists, Cassandra doesn't limit musicians to accompaniment,” says Riley. “She allows full expression and input. It's just a reflection of who she is as a person.”

By the time Wilson got to thinking about Silver Pony, she had rented a new home in the French Quarter. She‘d lived in New Orleans briefly before, some 30 years ago. In May 2009, Wilson lost her mother, who had been suffering from Alzheimer‘s disease. By October of that year, she and her band set out on a 13-city European tour, from Ludwigshafen, Germany to Guimares, Portugal.

“I thought the band had gotten to a point of critical mass,” Wilson says. “I was thinking that I really needed to document this specific group, this chemistry.” That chemistry is evident on two opening tracks, “Lover Come Back to Me,” and “St. James Infirmary,” recorded in concert in Granada, Spain. Both tunes were featured on Loverly, but whereas the former had a “1940s feeling” on the previous album, says Wilson, here it‘s a “postmodern approach to swing,” driven by Riley‘s powerful brushwork. And the latter deepens its uptempo groove from Loverly, ending in entirely newfound musical territory. “There's a natural evolution, once a song gets out into the air,” says Wilson, “something happens to it.”

Impressed as she was with the material recorded on tour, Wilson wished to get the band into the studio. “I thought, ‘Ok I‘m going to play some of this stuff for the guys, let them listen to it, and begin to grow ideas out of what we‘d done.' And it really did happen.”

Case in point: “Silver Moon,” a tour-de-force that features saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. Wilson had found a 20-minute recording drawn from the introduction to “Caravan,” as played in Seville, Spain. (A brief section of this forms the instrumental track, “Silver Pony.”) Wilson played it for her band, and they began to improvise anew, inspired by the live take. Sewell recalls the experience: “It was sort of like a stream-of-consciousness writer who goes back and thinks, ‘Man, look at this! Let me go back and build on this, develop it even further.‘”

“I walked in,” Wilson adds, “heard what they were doing, and decided to sing.” Soon she‘d penned lyrics, about an impassioned night under a silver moon. The final touch was adding a searing saxophone part by Coltrane. As heard on the new album, “A Night in Seville,” the live take that inspired all this, flows seamlessly into “Silver Moon,” the new studio creation.

“It‘s something that doesn‘t happen often,” says Fischbach, “where you get these two things working so perfectly together, fading in and out of one another like that. A magical track.”

Wilson has long mined the possibilities of Delta blues and the influence of her Mississippi roots. Perhaps incessant DVD viewing of “Cadillac Records” on the European tour bus helped focus her band on that musical milieu. (“It seemed like every time we rolled off,” says Sewell, “someone cued that up.”) “Saddle Up My Pony” is a riveting version of a Charlie Patton tune with Sewell displaying his mastery of the form; “Forty Days and Forty Nights” updates Muddy Waters‘ legacy with force.

The lilting live version of the bossa-nova classic “A Day in the Life of Fool” gives further testimony to the bands‘s prowess that night in Seville. And Wilson herself was surprised by what else happened in the studio: a funky, laid-back version of the Lennon-McCartney standard, “Blackbird”; a tender rendition of Stevie Wonder‘s “If It's Magic.”

Silver Pony‘s finale doesn‘t find Wilson riding off into the sunset. Instead, she sings “Watch the Sunrise,” a new song sent to her by singer John Legend for a long-sought collaboration, a shining and unexpected piece that sounds more like a glorious beginning than an ending.
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