Cassandra Wilson brings a fresh intensity to familiar classics. Phil Johnson finds her sexy, poignant and thrilling
In the poetics of popular song, the moon is usually prized, if it is prized at all, for its convenient rhyme with June. But for the jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson, the rhyming-dictionary's most called-upon silver orb has become something quite personal - a powerful symbol for the dark longing at the heart of the lovelorn songs she specialises in.

Whether by accident or design, Wilson's muse has been increasingly limned by moonlight: from the poignant reading of "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" on her great 1988 standards set, Blue Skies, to the wistful melancholy of Blue Light 'til Dawn - her breakthrough Blue Note album of 1993 - to the version of Neil Young's "Harvest Moon" on the 1995 follow-up, New Moon Daughter. Now comes her reading of a song that seems tailor-made for her, the standard "That Old Devil Moon", which appears on her new album, Rendezvous, a collaboration with the pianist Jacky Terrason.

It's a killer version too. A cymbal chimes, the double-bass strums, and then the piano introduces the melody with a few well-placed notes, before Wilson's impossibly sexy voice enters with the lyric: "I looked at you and suddenly; something in your eyes I see; soon begins bewitching me; it's that devil moon, that you stole from the skies, it's that old devil moon in your eyes."

It's a moment so thrilling that you just want it to continue forever, and although it's a very good album, it's difficult to get beyond the opening track. "Oh yes", says Wilson. "It was very important, and it was another song that I think I felt immediately drawn to. Coming out of this moon phase I've been in, songs with the moon in the lyric are especially attractive to me. But the Devil moon, yeah! I mean let's go there, you know?" What then, does this moon represent?

"It's that sort of helplessness that you have when you fall in love," Wilson says. "That space that you climb into and that's so hopeful and helpless, yet very dark and rich at the same time." It's a sense of abandonment that she also seems, from her recordings, to be very familiar with.

"I've done it, let's say that," she laughs. The new album arrives shortly after Wilson appeared as one of the principal guest vocalists in Wynton Marsalis's epic oratorio Blood on the Fields, where she sang the role of a slave-girl. When the show reached London's Barbican, as the last date in a month-long European tour, the cast looked, to say the least, exhausted. "I was wrecked," she recalls, "completely emotionally drained. The whole experience was cathartic and it had become so intense because we partied so hard as well. Not staying out and getting drunk and playing cards night after night, but there were moments when we had those kind of gatherings in order to get a sense of release, because the music was excruciatingly difficult, hideous. It's a lot of music and it was very tiring for both audience and musicians."

Getting the call from Marsalis was completely unexpected, she says, because they come from rival and sometimes opposing jazz camps.Wilson associated originally with the avant-garde end of the spectrum - saxophonist Steve Coleman's Brooklyn M-Base collective, while Marsalis was dedicating himself increasingly to a rather dry jazz-classicism. "I was very surprised that he called me, but he said he thought I was the only one he thought who could do it. It was very big of him to make that step across the boundary. I'd always had reservations about that camp, but that's cool. It's all right for us to have differences of opinion when it comes to the music, and we've learnt from it and come closer, Wynton and I, as a result of it."

Wilson is about to go into the studio to record her third solo set for Blue Note, which will appear next year. Already, the catalogues of music publishers must be being searched for songs with the word `moon' in the title. Frankie Vaughan's Give Me the Moonlight, Give Me the Girl is not thought to be a candidate. Not yet anyway.

`Rendezvous' by Jacky Terrason and Cassandra Wilson is available now on Blue Note