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.
Ballads are the natural showcase for such mastery, and of the album’s four slow jams, two reinterpretations – “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “Time After Time” – are particularly revealing. The former is an obvious swoon vehicle for Wilson, whose standards album, Blue Skies, established her as a peerless interpreter. Molasses-slow, set off by brushes and a disconsolate bass ostinato, her dramaturgy is shimmering and tragic without seeming mawkish. That she renders the Cyndi Lauper hit just as majestically highlights another of her affinities with Miles: a love of pop and a readiness to imbue it with deep, complex emotions. The chiming acoustic guitars and Wilson’s hesitant, stop-start line parsing breathes so much ache into this VH-1 flashback that it’s almost perverse. (She has done similar things with songs by the Monkees.)
A love of pop craft also shows in Wilson’s originals, which tend toward breezy chord progressions and intimate dialogue, and are often the highlights of her records. But verbally conjuring one of jazz’s most enigmatic figures would be a daunting task for any librettist. For the most part, Wilson handles the job effectively if unspectacularly, eschewing corny scat tropes of crazy cats boppin’ at Minton’s for more elemental lyrics about lightning and thunder, sound and wind. This allows the listener a luxurious immersion in her voice – easier with a tone-poem masterpiece like Bill Evans’s “Blue in Green” (reborn as “Sky and Sea”) than with an original like “Right Here, Right Now,” whose Baba Ram Dass aperçus and gnomic musings about the follies of modern life beg Jewel comparisons that no musician as cool as Wilson should have to endure.
That is, if anyone even notices the words. Of the very few vocalists with comparable musical intelligence, none has anything like Wilson’s throaty, smoky, drop-dead-gorgeous instrument. It’s not an acquired taste. While Betty Carter clearly informs her drawn-out, hornlike lines, Wilson’s husky, flecked timbre seems to come less from such bop-era technicians than from bluesier sirens like Nina Simone. Her voice is actually sub-contralto, lower than the standard female range, which suggests another provocative similarity to Miles Davis, the notoriously macho trumpeter who had, as Wilson writes in her liner notes, a quality “so intimate it seems almost feminine.” Both musicians marry a complex, hard-to-pin-down sense of humanity with a deep sense of the blues, enabling an unusual fluidity in style and era.
In a recent article that called Wilson “the brightest star of the post-classic generation,” jazz scholar Robert G. O’Meally wrote that classic jazz claimed “everything from country blues, church songs and ragtime to European classics, minstrel-show marches, vaudeville ditties, Latin music, and Broadway tunes.” Part of the allure of Wilson’s nineties records is that they actually sound like this heritage: swampy, folksy, twangy, and not the slightest bit “smooth.” Along with the polyglot instrumentation, her arrangements use open harmonic fields instead of intricate charts, letting drones and atmosphere provide songs with an ancient, atavistic quality. This openness lets Wilson seem to transcend the jazz genre much as someone like Alison Krauss did bluegrass or Jeff Buckley did alternative rock.
Of course, few musicians have traversed genre boundaries as pointedly as Miles Davis or with as much attitude. So it fits that one of Traveling Miles’s most exciting songs should come from his most controversial records, the fusion manifesto Bitches Brew. Remaking that album’s “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” Wilson assumes a persona quite unlike her sometime guises of cultural anthropologist or abstract formalist. And it’s one neither Joni Mitchell nor Roberta Flack nor Lauryn Hill could ever pull off. Presiding over a sexy, nervous acoustic funk groove, Wilson sings of high-john root and Mississippi mud, flirting with mojo clichés that, before the end of the first verse, she utterly validates. A dissonant electric chill rises in the air behind her as she sings, “When it comes to making music … I run the vooo … dooo … down.” Coming from her, that claim to seductive menace is understated, irrefutable, and totally badass. Qualities Miles would definitely appreciate.