Contemporary female vocalists have to live up, or down, to the most famous exemplars of their art in a way most instrumentalists manage to escape. If they cover the classic repertoire of standards, they face unfavourable comparisons. If they don't, we want to know why. For Cassandra Wilson, who begins a short tour at the Jazz Cafe tonight, the victim business is a distortion of the truth. 'To me, Billie Holiday was very much in control,' she says. 'She was a musician, and that isn't focused on in the telling of her story. People tend to focus on the fact that she was a drug addict but you can't just be a drug addict and produce music like that; there has to be an amount of discipline.'
After a recording career that for eight albums followed, at least partly, the pattern of the classic female jazz singer (her Blue Skies set of 1989 is one of the best of all standards albums), the feisty Wilson has broken with the tradition in her latest, Blue Light Til Dawn (Blue Note). Swapping show tunes for originals and covers of Robert Johnson, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison, and the traditional jazz quartet for a stripped-down setting of slide guitar, string bass and percussion, the album represents the best female vocal performance on disc for ages. Though the material is still largely within the traditions of blues and popular song, Wilson's voice is allowed free rein to fill up the sound without pausing for the reply of a saxophone or a piano, the normal method in small group vocal jazz. She hasn't abandoned the standards in performance, but she has begun to approach them differently: 'I think that the way you empower yourself is to re-write the words or change the way you look at a song in order to step outside the victim persona,' she says. It's as if she first had to lose the burden of the traditional repertoire before her own voice could really come through.
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