Miles Ahead, Milestones, Miles Smiles . . . you might think the puns on Miles Davis' name had been exhausted by his own albums. But Cassandra Wilson can be forgiven for adding to the wordplay, since the title of her new CD, Traveling Miles, perfectly captures the spirit of her tribute.
King Cat Theater, Thursday, May 6
She is not out to resurrect any particular period of Miles, or mimic his style, or advance his concept. Instead, she wanders through her own memories of the late trumpeter, invoking certain qualities of his sound, adding lyrics, transforming and ignoring whatever she sees fit, for a personal pastiche that is more about Miles' personal effect on her than an homage to his career. The result is Wilson's best solo session to date.
Traveling Miles caps a period in which Wilson has been moving away from the progressive, Brooklyn-based jazz of her late-'80s emergence and toward a more rootsy, rural sound, heavily layered with guitar effects. "The guitar is so much a part of Southern culture," says Wilson, who grew up in Mississippi. "It all started off in the Delta with one man playing the guitar." But where Wilson's last two discs got a little slow and sludgy down on the farm, Traveling Miles is much lighter on its feet, with more rhythm and shifts of mood.
In preparing for this project, Wilson says she went back to those Miles recordings "that really resonate for me personally—that I connect with things that happened in my life or emotions I had." With her two co-arrangers, guitarists Doug Wamble and Marvin Sewell, she wreaks an amazing transformation on Wayne Shorter's "ESP," teasing a warm and optimistic samba out of this cool, jittery piece from Miles' mid-'60s book. The classic ballad "Blue in Green" gets recast in a tender 6/8 feel, with a loping bass line that leaves traces of "Footprints" (courtesy of Dave Holland, the only musician on the disc who actually spent time in Miles' band).
Wilson says that with each arrangement she tried to give her musicians "a picture, a vignette, a scenario. I always talk to the guys about how I feel about the tune and where the interpretation is coming from." For "Someday My Prince Will Come," she had them imagine "a young black girl in a room alone, with a music box, and on this music box is [that song]. There's a lot of paradox there. It sets into a play a whole other group of emotions." With a beautiful, droning ostinato and some dark blue twists to the changes, Wilson and her musicians evoke a feeling of tragic futility that never would have afflicted Snow White's pretty little head.
Just as Miles did with Disney material in the '50s, Wilson likes to find music within the most mundane pop pap. (Her last disc, New Moon Daughter, featured a soulful rerun of the Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville.") So she is naturally unafraid to embrace Miles' disreputable recordings from the '80s, when he was covering hits by Scritti Politti and the like. She easily surpasses the master with her arrangement of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," re-harmonizing the turnaround for bittersweet effect, and loosening up the tick-tock groove for a slow, spacious feel that's far more affecting than what Miles did (which wasn't much).
Through it all, it's easy to miss how great a singer she is. More than any jazz vocalist to date, Wilson has completely enfolded herself into the sound of her band. Betty Carter may have used her voice as an instrument, but there was never any doubt that the trio was there to "back her up." Wilson is as deeply rooted as the string bass. There are no licks or flourishes, just an effortless way of delivering a melody that is throaty and natural, flawless yet very much of this world. She doesn't hit notes, they just seem to come to her. Like Miles, she has a tentative lyricism that seems to express everything, yet withhold at the same time. The words she writes wield simple imagery of sea and stars, shadows and dreams, but they nestle perfectly inside the many different genres she has taken on.
Wilson is an avowed admirer of Joni Mitchell, and Mitchell-like voicings can be heard on several of her originals on this disc, including "Right Here, Right Now" and "When the Sun Goes Down"—both '70s-style pop gems that would fit quite comfortably on the playlist at the Mountain. Indeed, with Traveling Miles, Wilson seems to have arrived at that same intersection of jazz and folk-pop that Mitchell reached, from the opposite direction, in the late '70s.
Not surprisingly, Wilson worries little about whether she is playing "jazz" or not. "When I was younger it was really important to understand different categories of music," she says. "Now I'm not so concerned with it." She says improvisation is still "the largest part" of what she's doing with her touring band—which includes musical director Lonnie Plaxico on bass, along with two guitars, percussion, drums, and vibraphone. "We all pretty much understand the forms," she says. "Now it's about everybody investing their personalities into the music."