Cassandra Wilson: 'thunderbird' Enlightening

Cassandra Wilson: 'thunderbird' Enlightening

Ask Cassandra Wilson about the state of jazz and blues in today's music landscape, and one of the first names she mentions is less hipster than hip-hop: rapper/producer Kanye West.

"That blues piece that he did with Jamie Foxx. That 'Golddigger' piece," she said. "I would call it a blues piece. It's definitely hip-hop, but it definitely has that sample of Jamie singin' the blues."

That interpretation may defy current music industry pigeonholing, but then again that's a pitfall Wilson's learned to live with. Her latest album — "thunderbird," her seventh album for Blue Note Records in New York — features tracks that would be as at home on an adult contemporary radio station as they would be on a smooth jazz outlet.

Becoming an artist that moves beyond those labels is something Wilson took years to accomplish.

"It doesn't bother me so much anymore, because I know there are going to be some labels fliggin' [every album]," she said. "It was a bit bothersome [starting out] because of my immaturity. There was tremendous pressure in the beginning, with people asking me 'Why aren't you interpreting the American Songbook?' Well, the American Songbook is something that's ongoing. It's always expanding."

Wilson, who won a Grammy Award for her album "New Moon Daughter," is an unmistakable singer, her voice somehow blending smoke and silk. Until "thunderbird," her sound was just as distinct, with sparse arrangements featuring her acoustic guitar work.

Then came a collaboration with super-producer T Bone Burnett.

BURNETT HAS made his name both as a music producer for artists ranging from Elvis Costello to Dr. Dre and as a movie soundtrack producer. He captured a Grammy for his work on the Coen Brothers' film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" He also worked on the music for films such as "The Big Lebowski," "Cold Mountain" and most recently "Walk the Line."

Wilson first met Burnett while working on a soundtrack he was executive producing for the television show "Crossing Jordan." He wasn't a "wish-list" producer for her, but she was intrigued to work with someone who would obviously challenge her with his enterprising arrangements.

"I like being taken out of my comfort zone," she said. "Every so often, you have to be pushed, be in a bind. You have to dig down deep and realize what's really happening."

It helps when the producer is also a fan.

Wilson doesn't make time to read her own press clips. Perhaps that's why it was news to her that Burnett had labeled her the "last great jazz singer" in an interview with Jazz Times magazine. "I mean, maybe somebody else will come along, but as far as I see on the horizon, she's the last real one. In a lot of ways — though I say this with some trepidation — she may be the greatest of all-time," he said.

The result of their collaboration on "thunderbird" is a dense sound that amplifies the emotions without overwhelming the listener.

"I don't know that I'd exactly call it a Wall of Sound," she said. "There's a great deal of thought given to the placement of each piece."

Sometimes, however, a lack of thought works just as well. The lead-off track on "thunderbird" is a funky world music collaboration by Wilson, keyboardist Keefus Ciancia and bassist Mike Elizondo called "Go To Mexico." Based around a sample recorded from the Tchoupitoulas, a legendary tribe of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians, the song began as a loose improvisational jam to which Wilson added lyrics.

"We didn't even know what the sample was until about two months before it was released," she said.

Are these well-produced tracks difficult to recreate live?

"I don't know," she said with a laugh. "We're going to find out."

WILSON DOESN'T enjoy long tours, mainly because she has a son in high school. Her current tour is on the East Coast and is six cities long, including a stop at The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., on Sunday, Sept. 24. for a 7:30 p.m. show. Tickets are $39.50.

"I'm really looking forward to it," she said. "Because it's great to break out of a habit, to have the opportunity to work with new musicians and with work that's so textured. To figure out how to translate that into a live performance."

One remedy, Wilson said, is to strip away some of the production on the songs and presents them in a raw form — a style more in keeping with the majority of Wilson's previous works.

"The music is given the opportunity to grow."

Her music has grown over the last decade, to the point where Wilson has influenced a generation of other artists. "I have seen it," she said with a knowing laugh. "It's great."

She's also seen a more troubling development in the music world: the affect Hurricane Katrina had on the Southern scene. Wilson, whose hometown of Jackson, Miss. was touched by the storm's tragedies, feels Katrina will have a lasting impact on jazz and blues in the South.

"It's one of the things that's really scary, because all of these musicians are jut spread out. They're not enjoying the same kind of community as they had before," she said.

"I think it's going to have a tremendous impact. We're going to miss that. We're going to miss New Orleans."