Cassandra Complex

The songs on Cassandra Wilson's new album unfold over many listens, revealing some of their secrets and leading to more

All the songs benefit from Wilson's constantly evolving use of musical space. Every instrument -- from her thick, rich voice to the various guitars and other plucked strings to the diverse range of percussion -- is allowed to exist in an open area of sound. The music doesn't pile in on itself; rather, it bounces off the openness, relates to everything around it and builds up layers of delicious resonance.

The fertile sparseness of the arrangements stems in part from Wilson's use of hand drums as her main rhythm instruments rather than the traditional trap drums of most jazz musicians. "It changes the acoustic environment," she explains. "It changes the space because a traditional drum kit takes up a lot of space, from the high end to the low end. You have ringing cymbals, and traditional jazz drummers tend to use a lot of cymbal work. That's the one thing that always bothered me. It's too much space that it takes. Sometimes it's difficult to cut through or to find a comfortable space for the voice to live in."

As a singer, of course, Wilson could be expected to lobby for the primacy of the voice, but it's the song itself that concerns her. A technician of extreme virtuosity, she's capable of singing a wide range of notes clearly and cleanly, of playing with the rhythms of her delivery as if the beats were taffy, of enriching the harmonic possibilities of any given chord with a perfectly chosen note. Her band is also quite good, but the members don't take a lot of solos or otherwise call attention to themselves or their playing. Everything is in support of the song.

Cassandra Wilson
Cassandra Wilson


Tuesday, April 9

"There has to be an element of drama to make a good song," Wilson explains. "It's basically storytelling through music that makes a song. It's hard to separate the lyric from the music. The lyric wouldn't be the same if it were a different melody. It's a combination of the melody and lyric."

And, obviously, the arrangement: All the parts in Wilson's world go to make up the whole. "I'm a musician, which means I'm a trained musician," Wilson concludes with justifiable pride. "A large part of it is natural. Most people, when they enter an art, they have a natural propensity for that art. But there's a lot of discipline that goes into it and hard work, and that's what you hear -- at least I hope that you hear it. There's a lot of hard work that goes into understanding music, being able to analyze music, being able to approach it not only from an emotional perspective but from a scientific perspective."

« Previous Page