Smiling from every magazine cover, topping every critic's poll, the sunny, earthy, amazingly poised Lauryn Hill is the prime mover of current pop discourse. Critics say her Grammy-sweeping The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill represents the multi-culti music of the future. They say she brought underground chops to classic songcraft, reconciled seventies soul with nineties grit. They say she has the voice of Roberta Flack and the songwriting gift of Joni Mitchell. Who do they think she is, Cassandra Wilson?
Actually, they wouldn't be so far off. Had she been born twenty years earlier, grown up on Sarah Vaughan as well as Marvin Gaye, and possessed twice as much voice, Hill might be very much like Wilson, the jazz singer who releases her twelfth album, Traveling Miles, this week. The two are peers, if not soul sisters. In two competitive, female-unfriendly music cultures, both have excelled on their craft's own terms. (Hill's rap skills are wildly underrated.) And in two largely static and homogeneous genres, each brought an invigorating new aesthetic, giving the male-dominated scenes a warmer, more personal vision of nineties music-making. Hill's breakthrough required a confessional frankness; her solo debut bared professional spite, romantic hurt, and a love of Frankie Valli hits. Wilson's came through a similarly brave self-disclosure. As she told one magazine, "I needed to be able to say, 'Yeah -- I like Bread.' "
In her 1993 album Blue Light 'Til Dawn, the edgy virtuoso--a veteran of Brooklyn's futuristic jazz collective M-Base--embraced folk songs, show tunes, and AM hits. Her candor and expansive musicality opened a new avenue for jazz expression. The record brought in bazoukis and harmonicas, linked Robert Johnson blues to Van Morrison ballads, and unified them all in a tingling sonic space that displayed both jazz delicacy and a mastery of studio seduction technology. Produced with cinematic ambience (all struck matches and chirping cicadas) by Craig Street, Blue Light and its '96 follow-up, New Moon Daughter, recast Wilson as a folksy sorceress. It was a convincing role for a singer whose voice suggests incense and thunderheads. It's also one that makes her uniquely suited for her new album's spiritual touchstone: fellow sorcerer and crossover artist Miles Davis.
Traveling Miles (Blue Note) presents tunes that were either composed or famously performed by the trumpet giant, along with four originals that are, one assumes, somehow in synch with his spirit. Wilson and music director-bassist Lonnie Plaxico take an appropriately minimalist approach to the material, retitling many of the songs and using only basic melodies and arrangement filigrees to evoke Davis's distinct musical temperament. This self-produced album isn't as lushly enveloping as Wilson's Craig Street-helmed records, but it does strive for a mood -- a sort of dark, mercurial sensitivity -- and it makes surprising connections along the way.
The record grew out of a Jazz at Lincoln Center commission Wilson performed a little over a year ago, during which the strands connecting vocalist to horn player became forehead-slappingly obvious. Most striking was their shared visual charisma. Unlike her hero Betty Carter -- a glistening, tautly grimacing oracle onstage -- Wilson is an effortlessly glamorous performer, a swaying, willowy muse in golden dreads. And as with Miles, this lithe physicality seems to bespeak a specific kind of pantomime, an ability to suspend time and space, to summon opera-size emotions with the subtlest gesture.