Artist: Cassandra Wilson
Album: Coming Forth By Day
Label: Sony Legacy
Release Date: 04/07/2015
Every generation is blessed with a handful of singular voices, but the real test is how long that voice endures. Close your eyes and you can easily conjure up not only Billie Holiday’s alluring and seductive voice, but her emotional depth and dark spirit that linger even longer. Her lyrics are a given. We’ve heard them in so many different contexts that they’re just burned into our subconscious.
Who but Cassandra Wilson would be brave enough to take on a tribute album marking the centennial of Holiday’s birth? “I never feel intimidated, I always feel challenged, and it made sense,” said Wilson. “I’m part of this legacy—I come from Billie by way of Abbey Lincoln. I know I’m in that line of singers but I also know myself. I purposely did not listen to other tributes because my way is unique and I serve it best by focusing on that.”
Wilson’s manager, Ed Gerrard, suggested that Nick Launay (best known for his work with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) produce the album. You can count on Wilson to take the unconventional path, so we have the Bad Seeds rhythm section along with T Bone Burnett and Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs on guitars joining Cassandra’s regulars, guitarist Kevin Breit and pianist Jon Cowherd. Saxophonist Robby Marshall with string arrangers Van Dyke Parks and Eric Gorfain round out the lineup.
The mostly quiet, varied arrangements yield plenty of space and a rather haunting, multi-textured, slow-tempo backdrop for Wilson’s unique interpretations. “I have a strong feeling that if she [Billie Holiday] were around today, she’d understand what we did, and I’m sure she would not want to hear someone singing a song in exactly the same way she did back in 1941 or ’51,” said Wilson. Producer Launay added, “The basic recordings were recorded completely as live improvised jams, including what you hear as the final vocals. The musicians just fed off Cassandra’s singing and drew inspiration from each other, and damn, did magic happen!”
There’s no imitation here. Note the unique arrangements and especially the spare backing on “I’ll Be Seeing You.” “Last Song,” written for Lester Young, is the only original and is Wilson’s way of having Holiday say her goodbye to Young, a chance she never had in real life. Whether Wilson had already proved it or not, Coming Forth By Day is yet more evidence that she is one of this generation’s singular voices.