Opera House, Wellington Jazz Festival
Friday, June 7
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more soulful, hypnotic, enchanting and controlled performance. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more engaging, magnetic live-inside-each-song performance. Cassandra Wilson embodies each song, controls the band through her movements, every hip-shake, every slow grind, every shoulder-shrug; if she doesn’t issue the sound as conduit then she reacts so viscerally. At one moment, when percussionist Mino Cinelu sent a spine-chilling conga-crack/cymbal-splash flam out to accent the groove Wilson jumped. Her back was turned to Cinelu but it was palpable that she felt the music instantly/instinctually. Because when she jumped her feet hardly left the floor, it was instead a jump from the gut. Her body shunted by the sound/shunting to the sound.
The only time I’ve ever seen a performer control the music in such a way, issuing it, reacting to it – creating a dance that deserved its own instrumental credit – was (don’t laugh) Nana Mouskouri. Until this night one song by Mouskouri from one performance stood out as the single greatest bit of living-body choreography that I’ve witnessed – after this performance by Cassandra Wilson, this summoning, I’m not sure anything – ever – could compare.
And though it might seem odd to think of Mouskouri I’m sure Wilson wouldn’t mind. We heard covers of Jimmy Webb and The Monkees, there’s a chance that White Rose of Athens is being worked up for Cassandra’s next album. (Stranger things, after all…)
The band – stalwarts – begins the night with harmonica player Gregoire Maret’s rendition of The Secret Life of Plants (the Stevie Wonder cover no one – including Stevie Wonder, no doubt – ever expected to hear).
Lonnie Plaxico (bass) and Mino Cinelu locked in with Charles Burnham who, across violin and mandolin, coaxed a range of rhythm guitar, percussion, keyboard and other found sounds. His cry-baby wah sounds all but incongruous to the instruments in theory, but so beautifully expressive and the perfect accents to the work of long-serving guitarist Brandon Ross.
Indeed all the colours were there instantly – before Wilson made her way to the stage. In fact there was a moment, albeit brief, where the music sounded so perfect, so washed clean, that the worry was we had in fact booked Sting’s band for the night.
When I interviewed Cassandra Wilson recently I suggested that she doesn’t so much work with genres as move through them – but actually the genres move through her. Jazz, soul, blues and pop balladry combine and through Wilson are turned into something wholly other, something newly definitive. Take, for instance, her rendition of Wichita Lineman which was somehow both lounge song and dark torch ballad at the very same time.
A fiesta vibe would inhabit other songs, growing up from near tune-ups as the songs found their flavour while happening.
The Delta blues of Saddle Up My Pony became folk song, work song, slow-churning groove piece. It became clear, from this number on, that this wasn’t just a concert, it was a magic show, a re-write of music history, a return to school, a new lesson, a trip to church and not just a very happening gig but less a gig and more of a happening.
All of the players were given moments to shine; all of the players knew – inherently – that it was their job to ensure it was the songs that were given their moment to shine. And all the while Wilson’s barefoot dance had her conjuring the music, a medicine woman, an evocation of Africa, the sound of America, part Abbey Lincoln, part Etta James, part Gladys Knight.
Gregoire Maret took to his harmonica at one moment as if it was the postman’s leg, his microphone chord the leash allowing him to get right out to the tune’s gate before gently calling him off slightly. When he finished gnashing at – and into – the harp he dropped the microphone to the floor and, momentarily punch-drunk, walked it off, shadow-boxing with the song. When he came up for air there was a realisation – from Maret, from his band-members, seen in the shine of Wilson’s smile particularly, and then to the audience that what he’d offered right then, right there wasn’t so much a solo as it was a life’s work.
And that’s what Wilson offers and issues: A life’s work. Players that have worked with Miles Davis and Kurt Elling and Dizzy Gillespie and George Benson and so many others across pop and jazz and blues and it all comes together to form a sound that is caught in a butterfly net, presented for those moments on the stage and then allowed free to transmute once again, to continue its evolution.
So deeply spiritual, so profoundly soulful, so impossible not to get lost in – you use up a lot of hyperbole in this game and I’ve already declared one special gig the best I’ve ever seen and suggested the same of a few more no doubt. But this was a happening. This was mesmerising for the duration. This was something to think about for so many years on. This was its own thing entirely. There’ll never be anything like this. And what a great thrill it was to sit inside it, to be taken for that ride.