Cassandra Wilson, "Thunderbird" (Blue Note)
Cassandra Wilson's "Thunderbird" does the unthinkable for someone who clings to American roots. The chanteuse with the deep, dark voice has given those standards just enough room to germinate and grow.
Coming on the heels of her 2003 release "Glamoured," which critics panned for its departure from jazz ballads that Wilson's voice seemed drawn to, this album instead binds a myriad of old-time sensibilities with a distinctly modern flair.
Produced by T-Bone Burnett, who was behind the Grammy-winning "O Brother Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, the album comes at listeners from all directions, mixing looped vocals with compelling beats on one track, followed by sad bluesy guitar on the next.
On "Go To Mexico," Wilson sings about a trip to Mexico to enjoy the beaches while African drums overplay a jarring piano. It's a fun song with an infectious groove.
Later on "Easy Rider," Wilson returns to the traditional, carrying with her vocals a blues deeper than usual. With a dusky voice and melancholy slide guitar, Wilson bemoans a heartbroken female drifter. The mix goes further on "Poet," which incorporates a funky base rhythm.
Wilson has covered jazz greats before, recently recording an homage to Miles Davis. But it's refreshing to hear where these sounds can go if given to the right person. It isn't until the end of the album that you realize you've just heard something new.
But maybe the most notable achievement on the album lies in its vast appeal. "Thunderbird" is refreshing enough to carry the singer far beyond the inner circle of jazz aficionados who claim her as their own.
"Thunderbird" arguably is Wilson's second attempt to bring jazz and blues into the mainstream, and it just might be good enough to work.