She may be pegged as a jazz singer, but Cassandra Wilson does her best to neither act nor look like one. Bare-backed and dreadlocked on the cover of New Moon Daughter, she looks more like a pensive dance-club diva than an acclaimed avant-jazz singer and keyboardist. Flip the CD over and the track list includes songs by Neil Young, Hank Williams, and U2 — hardly the standard bebop repertoire. You can almost hear the disdainful sniffing of jazz purists around the country.
These sorts of musical twists are perfectly in keeping with Wilson’s intriguing career. During the last decade, the musician — who grew up in Mississippi and relocated to New York — has vacillated between straight jazz and an electric variation that veered dangerously close to banal fusion. Her reedy, fluid voice, which she wields like an improvisatory instrument, has always stood out, but the accompaniment has too often been muddled or simply ordinary.
On her last album, Blue Light ‘Til Dawn, Wilson took yet another unexpected tack. Working with producer Craig Street, a relative newcomer, she concocted music that wasn’t jazz per se, but a late-night-coffeehouse blend of jazz, folk, and cabaret vocalese. Applying that approach to the songs of, among others, Robert Johnson and Joni Mitchell — and treating them with the reverence normally accorded to Charlie Parker compositions — she and Street created something truly otherworldly. Singing in a solemn, heavy-lidded tone, Wilson sounded like a mythological siren on Prozac — without any nasty side effects. With Blue Light ‘Til Dawn, her risk-taking finally clicked; only Tony Bennett and Harry Connick Jr. sold more jazz albums in 1994.
Working again with Street, Wilson wanders even further onto her own astral plane on New Moon Daughter. The arrangements are fuller and a bit more conventional than on Dawn, but no less intoxicating. The songs are dotted with plunked acoustic guitars and the occasional violin or steel guitar, resulting in music for a mystical foggy swamp. Even with a banjo creepily echoing in the background, Son House’s ”Death Letter” sounds utterly contemporary, a rare feat in blues remakes. The eerie tone is reinforced by Wilson, who sings deeper than ever, holding and caressing notes and letting them gently fade like a candle’s last flicker.
Wilson’s appreciation of contemporary songwriting is admirable, but some of her previous rock and blues covers have been labored, as if she were treating them too seriously. In that regard, New Moon Daughter marks another leap forward. Her most startling move is a loose, scatting version of the Monkees’ ”Last Train to Clarksville.” Not only does this piece of pure pop hold up to such an overhaul, it’s given added depth: ”We’ll have time for coffee-colored kisses/And a bit of conversation” never sounded so sultry. U2’s ”Love Is Blindness” becomes even more of a last-call-at-the-bar moan. Generally, Wilson’s originals aren’t as distinctive as her covers — her ”Solomon Sang” is too reminiscent of Phoebe Snow’s icky ”Poetry Man” — but ”Until” is a gorgeous ode to devotion that flows like a river of spring water.
If the album has a flaw, it’s the pursuit of aural perfection. Wilson is aiming for something cerebral, but the instrumental licks and vocal inflections can feel as if they’ve been mathematically planned. On ”Strange Fruit” — the song, long associated with Billie Holiday, about a lynching in a Southern town — Wilson sounds as if she’s arranging the notes in her head rather than feeling the story. And her carefully phrased reading of Young’s sweet ”Harvest Moon” is chillier than it should be. Yet such risks are also Wilson’s strengths. Treating pop songs without snobbery, unafraid to muddy the perceptions of what a jazz singer should and shouldn’t do, Wilson continues her beguiling journey into pop’s heart of darkness. A-