As a child in the 1960s the very fist album that Cassandra Wilson owned was by the Monkees, after she had fallen in love with their TV show. It contained Last Train To Clarksville, which, three decades later, she would transform from frothy pop into something radically reimagined and brooding. It exemplifies a knack she has of revisiting her past and burying oblique biographical references in her work.
That same child was mesmerised by her father’s copy of Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain masterpiece, and in 1999 she recorded Travelling Miles, a Davis tribute album. Her most recent release, Another Country, contains O Sole Mio, a song ubiquitous throughout the western world, including for a girl growing up in Jackson, Mississippi.
Unifying force such diverse material has been her voice: a low contralto that could imply hidden, sensual meaning in a shopping-list.
It helps that the voice’s owner is about as steeped in the jazz-blues tradition as you can get. She resided in the same New York apartment that Count Basie and Lena Horne had previously called home. She now lives in back Mississippi, the state that spawned the blues.
In its earliest guise that music was usually made just by a guitar and a striking voice – the hallmarks of Wilson’s uncluttered music output the groundbreaking Blue Light ‘Til Dawn album (1993). The subsequent jazz-infused roots music that has come to define her was the destination at the end of a twisting musical path. She had been a classically trained pianist from the age of six who morphed into a self-taught guitar-playing folk singer, and then into a jazz singer.
“There are no genres as far as I’m concerned in terms of the material that I choose,” she says, “but I like to describe my work as having jazz as a discipline. If you want to develop a unique voice and to alter arrangements and to turn something on its head, jazz discipline is a very important part of that.” She is adamant that those skills are not ends in themselves but “preparation to create something new to add to the canon”.
She is currently assembling a live album, Private Collection, and where some artists cannot stand listening to their recordings, Wilson finds the process fun and educational. She says she is interested to find what works, not to regurgitate it, but to learn how to open up options, or as she puts it, “What leads you into this corridor, or through this door. There’s no formula for it. It’s just something that you tap into when all of the elements are right.”
Her Australian tour coincides with the twentieth anniversary of Blue Light ‘Til Dawn, reunites her with some of the players from that album. “We didn’t plan it this way,” she says. “It just happened.” But it does incline her to revisit some of the most popular music she has ever released.