In 1988, vocalist/composer Cassandra Wilson released Blue Skies (JMT/Verve), a recording of jazz standards with the conventional backing of piano, acoustic bass and drums. It became a big hit and a big burden. Ms. Wilson was quite capable of singing standards; her billowy contralto turns “Polkadots and Moonbeams” into a smoky siren call, but she was aiming to break convention not conform to it. Five years later, November 1993 to be precise, she released Blue Light Till Dawn (Blue Note), a groundbreaking recording that continues to resonate just over 20 years later. Monday night, she celebrated that landmark anniversary by revisiting the repertoire at the Highline Ballroom.
The easiest way to gauge the impact of Ms. Wilson’s 1993 recording is to look at the song list. There are contributions from Robert Johnson, Ann Peebles, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Charles Brown, Thom Bell/Linda Creed, Don Raye/Gene DePaul, Cyro Baptista and several originals. This kind of eclecticism from an African American artist was radical at the time. Even more radical was the sound, Wilson a daughter of the Mississippi Delta with strong ties to New Orleans, created amalgam of blues, jazz, rock and various other afro-diasporic sounds. The recording was iconic for African Americans of a certain vintage who were more than a little weary of being boxed in by arbitrary music industry categories. Along with Lenny Kravitz, Wilson helped pave the way for today’s remarkable afro-eclecticism, heard in music ranging from Gary Clark Jr. to the Carolina Chocolate Drops to Valerie June. And for everyone else, it was probably just a bunch of great songs performed in a passionate and unique manner.
The Highline Ballroom was packed Monday night with fans, many of whom looked as if Blue Light was the soundtrack of their collegiate years. Blue Light gave Cassandra both first name branding and popularity well outside of jazz precincts. The album, well CD, vinyl was in its most dormant phase then, was recorded in intimate settings. Peebles “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” for instance was just a duet between Wilson and the late Chris Whitley (another artist whose career trajectory was sidetracked by a hit) on National Resophonic Guitar. Now, she travels with an impressive eight piece band that added density and tonal color but no unnecessary heft to the tunes. The most impressive element was the rhythmic weight brought to the Robert Johnson tunes, and diverse percussion that expanded Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow.” Wilson’s eclectic tastes continue unabated. One of the first tunes not from Blue Light was a cover of Nick Cave’s “The Weeping Song.” After playing every song on the recording, each sounding a bit more colorful and deep than the original versions, Wilson cherry picked some highlights from the recordings made right after Blue Light then she closed with her somber take on Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.”
Perhaps the best part of the concert was that nostalgia was conspicuously absent. There are many reasons to prefer New York City circa the mid ‘90s to today’s iteration of the Big Apple but that wasn’t the point. The point was to draw on some innovative music released just over 20 years ago as both a celebration and a reminder that barriers can always be broken. Always.