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Cassandra Wilson

by AjD

Buy New Moon's Daughter

Ella Fitzgerald died the Saturday past and the world is a grimmer place now. It's true she hadn't performed for a few years; she was bedridden and was suffering badly from diabetes. But America has lost its greatest singer of songs, and even when it's cliche enough to say that we'll never see her kind again, it's too true in this case. No impersonator, copier, or slavish follower of Ella's style could ever possibly be her; she always knew exactly how to sing with unaffected charm and all anybody else could best try to do is wonder how Ella would've done it.

The seventies and the eighties weren't the best times for her and her kind: rockinroll music had conquered the world and there wasn't much room for her sort of joyful playing with songwriter's songs. But in the nineties, rock got stale, rap got threatening, and maybe there's a slow revival of interest in the sort of beautiful expression of wonderful songs that Ella did best.

Maybe she was a bit too sunny and open, so capable a singer that she actually could do anything to a song she wanted, whether it fit or not. Maybe she did too much fluffy pop music and didn't try to challenge herself further by the late sixties. Those are awfully curmudgeonly criticisms to level at this late date. Try not to think about 'em.

There's a rush at the record stores on Ella Fitzgerald CDs right now. I'll betcha' I couldn't find one in this town if I tried. But I hope any Jazz radio station that deserves its broadcasting license will be playing a few Ella Fitzgerald songs each hour for the next month. Seek some of 'em out. They're doing you a favor. Kick back and enjoy.


There is no inheritor to Ella Fitzgerald's crown. She made it and retired it and it's going in a museum now. But Cassandra Wilson is going to become a special figure in her own right, and I can't wait to see what happens.

She hit her groove an album ago with "Blue Light 'Til Dawn", and is exploring it further with "New Moon's Daughter", a dark, spare, rich album of rarefied sounds and taste.

Cassandra's voice owes more to duskier-toned singers than Ella. She carries reminders of Billie Holliday and Nina Simone in her voice, and in her selection of music. She covers Lady Day's great song 'Strange Fruit', using a rattling dobro and lurching bass line to turn it into a brooding meditation on human cruelty, nearly stripping it of irony. But for most of the album, she touches on lighter topics than racism, although never turning sunshiny and bright.

Nearly the entire album rates high on the johnson factor, if for no other reason than because of her soft, intimate singing and spare arrangements throughout. Even when the songs touch on dark subjects (racist lynchings in "Strange Fruit", the sorrow of loss in "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"), the warmth of her voice becomes soothing, although never complacent.

Cassandra's selection of covers is interesting, too: there's a song from U2 ("Love is Blindness"), one from Hoagy Carmichael ("Skylark"), Hank Williams ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"), and even the Monkees ("Last Train to Clarksville"). In the hands of a lesser artist, this eclecticism would be homogenized by a limited stylistic palette or demonstrate too many of the performer's weaknesses. Cassandra Wilson is one of the few singers (Ella is another, of course) who has impeccable taste in songs, seeing even the strengths in otherwise fluffy ditties as "Last Train to Clarkesville", and making them her own.

Hardly anybody can sing with such expressive love and care without sounding forced or mawkish. Cassandra can, and she's great in all ways. Not the next Ella, but when she's this good, who cares?

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