Cassandra Wilson Makes A Return To Jazz

Vocalist Cassandra Wilson is set to release Loverly on June 10, a tantalizing, rhythmically driven collection of jazz standards given new luster with a top-drawer band of friends that includes Marvin Sewell on guitar, Jason Moran on piano, Herlin Riley on drums, Lekan Babalola on percussion and Lonnie Plaxico on bass (with bassist Reginald Veal and trumpeter Nicholas Payton guesting). "I wanted to work with spare arrangements this time, " says Wilson of Loverly, her first full album of standards since her 1988 JMT album Blue Skies. "And I decided to dig back into standards with a small, compact group of musicians. I don't record the typical jazz standards a lot, but I love them and that's how I honed my craft. I studied the standards, listening to how other singers put their swing into them. But it's hard to do standards. You can't really sing them until you understand them."

The standard fare on Loverly includes "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most, " "Caravan, " "Gone With the Wind, " "Black Orpheus, " "Wouldn't It Be Loverly, " "Till There Was You, " "A Sleeping Bee, " "The Very Thought of You" and "St. James Infirmary." Plus, Wilson and co. conjure up a joint original, the grooved "Arere" (inspired by the Yoruban deity of iron and willpower) and deliver a killer take on "Dust My Broom, " a Robert Johnson original made famous by blues slide guitarist Elmore James.

Wilson gathered Plaxico, Sewell and Babalola to her home in Woodstock to start the Loverly ball rolling by "getting together some possible tunes and getting ideas of shapes." Key to those preparatory sessions was Babalola, the master percussionist from Lagos, Nigeria. "I've known Lekan for 15 years but this is the first time he recorded with me, " says Wilson. "He's a priest of the Yoruban religion and has a vast knowledge of African rhythms and how the rhythmic patterns have been retained throughout the African diaspora. We share a passion for discovering the connections between the rhythms from West Africa to the many places in the western hemisphere. That's why I brought Lekan into this project. His job was to find that West African drumming pattern underpinning each of the tunes that weren't straight-ahead or ballads."

For the recording sessions, Wilson rented a house in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, and turned it into a studio-bringing in all the recording equipment and then set up shop with her band from noon to midnight for six days. She sought to capture the relaxed nature of the sessions, to give a 360-degree view of what happens. That feeling is captured in the group's funky, upbeat version of "St. James Infirmary."

Even though Wilson is credited as the producer of Loverly, she says that the songs came together in a joint effort with her band. "I am the unproducer, " she says with a laugh. "I listen to everyone's opinion about the songs. Some people say that that is a fault. But I like the democratic approach. I like the input, and then we play the tunes, capturing the energy and the improvisational voices of everyone."

This year marks Wilson's 15th Anniversary on the Blue Note Records label.

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