HAMER HALL, MELBOURNE – SUNDAY JUNE 9, 2013
Reviewed by Brian Wise
During his introduction, Melbourne Jazz Festival Artistic Director Michael Tortoni used Time Magazine’s quote that Cassandra Wilson was America’s ‘best singer.’ That judgement was originally delivered back in 2001 Sunday night’s concert, the final event on the festival calendar, proved that it was still a valid claim.
If Time’s claim referred to Wilson’s ability as a jazz singer, it might have also added that she was America’s best blues singer as well! Then again. The inclusion of a Cesaria Evora song as a tribute to the late Cape Verde singer, broadens the repertoire even more from jazz to Delta blues to world music and renditions of pop standards (could any other singer also get away with turning ‘Last Train To Clarksville’ into a jazz ballad?).
On stage for just on two hours, Cassandra Wilson gently swept the audience up in her spell, abetted by a stunning ensemble of musicians that included acoustic guitarist Brandon Ross, percussionist Mino Cinelu (who played with the late Miles Davis), veteran upright bassist Lonnie Plaxico, violinist Charlie Burnham and Swiss-born harmonica virtuoso Gregoire Maret. In fact, Maret was given plenty of room to solo and was channelling soul man Stevie Wonder as much as jazz player Toots Thielemans. In fact, they performed Wonder’s ‘The Secret Life Of Plants.’
It occurred to me also that it is said something about the calibre of the musicians when you have a talented guitarist such as Ross, with a beautiful voice in his own right, who does not have to sing a note!
Wilson confessed that it was strange to have to perform two sets but it did not seem to harm the momentum. If anything, the first set left the audience in even higher expectation. Having cruised through a lovely rendition of Jimmy Webb’s ‘Wichita Lineman,’ Wilson allowed Maret space on his own, especially on the Stevie Wonder number. It is an unusual musical combination that we have not previously seen Wilson with here but it works brilliantly. She briefly mentioned the groundbreaking 1993 album Blue Light ‘Til Dawn and performed its title and also nodded to its successor New Moon Daughter prior to tackling U2’s ‘Love Is Blindness.’
Taking up the electric guitar herself, Wilson performed ‘Red Guitar’ from her latest album Another Country, having performed the title track earlier. While the tribute to Cesaria Evora, featuring Cinelu’s marvellous percussion, was joyous, other moments held more threat and challenge.
If Wilson’s reading of Charly Patton’s ‘Pony Blues’ had been impressive earlier then the piece de resistance was surely a stunning version of Son House’s ‘Death Letter,’ (also on New Moon Daughter) that recalled Wilson’s Mississippi roots. Wilson’s rich and velvety voice eked out every nuance of threat and sadness in the song.
The encore of ‘Time After Time,’ a song also favoured and recorded by Miles Davis, was almost all too pleasant a close to what had been a subtly magnificent show. It recalled Davis’ approach towards the end of his career when it seemed that his delivery was like an iron fist in a velvet glove. This was a show that will live with us for a long-time. Let us just hope it is not another decade before Cassandra Wilson returns to Australia.
Postscript: In the past few months I have been vehemently critical of the acoustics at Hamer Hall; however, the sound at the Cassandra Wilson show was flawless, even though I was sitting in the balcony. Or perhaps it was because I was in the balcony. Whatever the explanation it is the first time I have been happy with the sound at the venue.