The most gifted and accomplished jazz singer of her generation, Cassandra Wilson strikes out in new directions—with spectacular results—on her latest Blue Note album, thunderbird.
Set for release on April 4, 2006, thunderbird is Cassandra Wilson’s sixth Blue Note release, the fifteenth album of her stellar career, and her first collaboration with producer T Bone Burnett.
At first glance, the contents of thunderbird may seem familiar to those listeners who have embraced such albums as Cassandra’s Grammy Award-winning New Moon Daughter (Best Jazz Vocal Performance, 1996). There’s a classic blues, a folk ballad, a couple of entries from contemporary songwriters, and three originals co-written by the artist.
But no other Cassandra Wilson album has had a sound quite like this one: dense, humid, almost tactile, characterized by live-on-the-floor performances accented by studio technology but still retaining their essential organic qualities. An acoustic bass line may play subtly throughout the tack, then move into the foreground with sudden and dramatic impact. A lone slide guitar, intertwined with Cassandra’s voice, can conjure the weight and density of a full band.
Credit Cassandra Wilson with once again breaking free of familiar formulae and easy routes. Credit producer T Bone Burnett with thunderbird’s atmospheric magic, and for assembling an exceptional supporting cast in sessions that took place between November 2004 through January 2005 at various studios in L.A. (Capitol, The Village Recorder, The Green Room, and T Bone’s own Electro Magnetic) and New York (Dangerous Music).
“You know, most modern recording studios are pretty much the same,” Cassandra notes. “That is, unless you doctor them. I think great producers know how to do that, and T Bone Burnett is certainly in that group of great producers.
“He makes certain modifications that I can’t really go into detail about, because I think they’re secret. There are personal techniques that he uses in order to cater the studio, to get the sounds he wants to get.”
(Not for nothing was Burnett named Non-Classical Producer of the Year in the 44th Annual Grammy Awards. That 2002 ceremony celebrated his work on the multi-platinum soundtrack album O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its sequel Down From the Mountain as well as on the album Fan Dance by singer/songwriter Sam Phillips. T Bone has worked with everyone from Elvis Costello to Ralph Stanley, and produced and/or composed music for such films as The Big Lebowski, Cold Mountain, and the forthcoming All the King’s Men starring Sean Penn and Jude Law.)
About that supporting cast: Keefus Ciancia (piano, keyboards, programming) has worked with Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Fishbone, Macy Gray, Allison Krauss, and Elvis Costello, and with vocalist Jade Vincent in the duo Vincent & Mr. Green. Electric bassist Mike Elizondo has become a marquee name on the on the charts through his songwriting and production for 50 Cent (“In Da Club”), Eminem (“Just Lose It,”), and Eve (“Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” featuring Gwen Stefani).
Canadian slide guitarist Colin Linden first worked with T Bone Burnett in 2000, when he contributed a version of Skip James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” to O Brother Where Art Thou? Cassandra Wilson’s thunderbird crew also includes two members of her most recent touring band, Reginald Veal (acoustic bass) and Gregoire Maret (harmonica); guitarists Keb’ Mo’ and Marc Ribot; and the drummers Jay Bellerose, Jim Keltner, and Bill Maxwell.
Cassandra Wilson Talks About Songs From thunderbird
“Go To Mexico” – Cassandra, Keefus Ciancia, and Mike Elizondo created “Go To Mexico” from a studio jam. The vocal sample—the only such sound source heard on thunderbird—came from a vintage recording by the Wild Tchoupitoulas, a legendary tribe of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians. Cassandra later added lyrics to the instrumental track.
“‘Go To Mexico’ was something we did at the tail end of the sessions. Mike started playing that sample, and we just started playing along with it. The sound and the tempo of those [sampled] voices is not a mechanical thing—it has a very life-like quality, and it became almost like another musician in the room.”
“Collaborating with more than one writer to this extent was a whole new experience for me, and I really enjoyed it.”
“I Want to Be Loved” – Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones recorded this Willie Dixon composition in up-tempo arrangements. But Cassandra’s version is slowed-down and playfully sensual, her voice framed by the guitars of Keb’ Mo’ and Colin Linden and the loose, funky duel drumming of Jim Keltner and Bill Maxwell.
“Colin Linden is someone I’d just met through T Bone, and he is wicked on that slide guitar! Colin turned me on to the song. I like to do these vintage blues songs, to make them part of my projects whenever I can.”
“Closer to You” – Composer Jakob Dylan introduced “Closer to You” on the Wallflowers’ 2002 album Red Letter Days. Cassandra plays acoustic guitar on this beautiful interpretation, with its remarkable Reginald Veal bass solo and Keefus keyboard accents. Even before the release of thunderbird, Cassandra had begun including “Closer to You” in her live shows.
“T Bone introduced me to that song and I fell in love with it. I really fell in love with the lyrics—I learned a lot about intimacy from singing the song and studying the lyrics. I think Jakob Dylan is like his father, an incredible songwriter. There’s so much depth of emotion in his simple words and plain language.”
“Easy Rider” – Cassandra transforms a Blind Lemon Jefferson classic of the Twenties into a dramatic, intoxicating seven-minute blues epic for the 21st century. It’s as close as we’ve ever heard her come—at least on disc—to the sound and spirit of Jimi Hendrix.
“There are two different blues songs known as ‘Easy Rider’—the one that’s often titled ‘C.C. Rider,’ and this one. I gravitated towards Blind Lemon’s song because of the lyrics, which are very strong, very powerful, and not typical: ‘There’s gonna be a time when a woman don’t need no man/So hush your mouth, stop raisin’ sand…’
“I’m a big fan of Blind Lemon Jefferson and that whole Texas crowd. I like to study all those different country blues styles—from the Delta, from southern Mississippi, from Louisiana and East Texas.”
“Lost” – This romantic ballad, with its echoes of Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday, is one of two tracks (along with “Strike a Match”) composed by T Bone Burnett for the Wim Wenders film Don’t Come Knocking (2005, with Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange). Co-produced by J.D. Foster, the song is perfectly rendered with nothing more than Cassandra’s tender vocal and Marc Ribot’s electric guitar.
“’Lost’ is definitely from that ‘standards’ school of songwriting, and this track was a whole performance with Ribot—a master, one of my favorite guitar guys.
“I always work from an entire performance. If you have problems with the sound—say, if there’s leakage—then you might have to go in and fix something. But I try not to go back and change that performance, because you can feel the difference even if you alter one line.”
Cassandra describes the thunderbird recordings as “a blueprint for the way these songs will be performed live. I still consider myself a jazz musician and a jazz vocalist, so improvisation naturally becomes a part of whatever we do on stage.
“You want the songs to grow in public, to develop a life apart from the recording—and I’m sure they will.”