Premier jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson pays tribute to Miles Davis on her latest tour.

Smoke and Honey

Cassandra Wilson
The Carpenter Center
8 p.m.
Tuesday, April 20
262-8100 or 649-0577 Cassandra Wilson is arguably the premier female jazz vocalist today. Her unique style, a languid, category-defying blend of blues, rock, Tin Pan Alley and folk has received the sincerest form of flattery from an ever-increasing number of imitators. On Tuesday, April 20, she will perform at the Carpenter Center. While Wilson gained early critical recognition, she was anything but an overnight sensation. Her popular breakthrough didn’t come until her ninth album, 1993’s “Blue Light Till Dawn.” The record is a mix of jazz, delta blues, folk and rock, all transformed by Wilson’s smoke-and-honey delivery. The 1996 follow-up, “New Moon Daughter,” was even better. In this album of mostly covers, U2 and Neil Young rubbed shoulders with Billy Holliday and Son House, and a bubblegum classic like the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville” was reborn as a sexy lament. But what really set this album apart were the original songs, inventive and intimate, that more than held their own among the A-list covers. Rather than playing it safe with this winning groove, Wilson promptly recorded “Rendezvous,” a mainstream set of standards duets, accompanied by pianist Jackie Terrasson. Suddenly Wilson was everywhere — guesting on albums by Dave Holland, Pat Martino and Steve Turre, among others. Perhaps most notably she was lead vocalist on Wynton Marsalis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz opera “Blood on the Fields.” Wilson’s next major project was “Traveling Miles,” a six-night tribute to Miles Davis commissioned by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. The basic concept was that Davis was a “singer with a horn.” Thus there was no trumpet in the band, and Wilson wrote new lyrics for pieces that had existed previously only as instrumentals. The performances were both praised as ambitious and criticized as chaotic. Undaunted, Wilson reshaped the music, releasing “Traveling Miles” this March as an album and is currently performing it on a multi-city tour. In “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “Time After Time,” Wilson’s bluesy, behind-the-beat phrasing captures Davis’ trademark mournful detachment. Wilson is equally successful with edgier material such as Wayne Shorter’s “ESP” (“Never Broken” in Wilson’s version) and “Seven Steps to Heaven” (“Seven Steps”). Adding lyrics to music that has already done just fine without them is risky business. Wilson mostly avoids the obvious choices such as basing the lyrics on the original song titles. Instead, she uses the music as the foundation for a song cycle. The ironic wittiness of the writing brings to mind Joni Mitchell’s cutting-edge jazz/folk albums — especially Mitchell’s elegiac 1976 album “Hejira.” Most striking is the opening and closing take on “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down.” In Wilson’s hands the first take manages first to evoke both Davis and Jimi Hendrix; as a closing vocal duet with Angelique Kidjo, it makes a joyful overt connection to its African Roots. The relative intimacy of the Carpenter Center should provide an excellent venue for Wilson’s elegant emotional approach. In a music market dominated by smooth, processed product, Wilson is the real thing, a genuine voice at the height of her powers, and still


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