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Spotlights [Issue # 21 ]
Cassandra Wilson: Rises Again With Thunderbird

By Dean Truitt

Throughout her 20-year career, Mississippi native Cassandra Wilson has carved out an unusual niche for her artistry by maintaining a clear vision of herself and venturing out to different genres.

Fusing blues, soul, pop, jazz, rock, and R&B, the artist seems to have no limits in her desire for creative exploration. On her 16th release, Thunderbird, she decided to forego producing the album herself in favor of finding a collaborator off whom she could bounce her endless stream of ideas. One of the top picks of her list was acclaimed songwriter/producer T Bone Burnett, who has helmed projects for Elvis Costello and the Coen Brothers’ film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Of her partnership with Burnett, Wilson beams, “It was on another level, it was wonderful. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of American music and he really loves guitar the way I love the guitar, with a passion. He has an uncanny gift for bringing people together and turning them into a single unit, a single voice.”

Wilson and Burnett created a team using some of the world’s finest session musicians: drummer Jim Keltner, keyboardist Keefus Ciancia, bassist Mike Elizondo, and an appearance by blues veteran Keb’ Mo’ on the track, “I Want To Be Loved.” From the opening moments of “Go To Mexico,” Thunderbird kicks off with a swaggering groove that paves the way for Wilson’s husky contralto that floats over the myriad percussion, clavinet, guitar, and piano. As the music downshifts to a revamped cover of The Wallflowers’ “Closer To You,” her smoky vocals dance around the hypnotic beat and lilting guitar arpeggios in a relaxed manner that is both inviting and ethereal.

One of the album’s highlights is the spectacular performance on “Red River Valley,” which has a lengthy a cappella opening later matched with Colin Linden’s swampy slide guitar playing. The feel is of a gospel hymn performed in a sweaty New Orleans church service.

Thunderbird closes with the reflective track “Tarot,” which recalls an event in Wilson’s life. She explains, “The initial inspiration was an actual tarot reading. I got a tarot reading while I was in Los Angeles. It was a beautiful reading and those [the cards she mentions in the song] are actually the cards the reader was talking to me about. I went for a walk on Santa Monica on the beach and it was like a carnival. It had one of those machines where you put a quarter in and get your future told.” Rather than being simply song about a random event, Wilson turned the chance encounter into a perfect opportunity to sing about her amazing life. The mesmerizing strings and captivating rhythm add to the otherworldly atmosphere of the track. In the middle section, all the instruments quickly drop out in favor of one strumming acoustic guitar to support the singer’s haunting musings. As a harmonica trails off in the fadeout, the listener feels ready to start the album once again and take the journey another time.

Blue Note

Rises Again With Thunderbird Cassandra Wilson Thunderbird

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