Music | MUSIC NOMAD

Hitting the high notes of jazz

Blue Note showcases classic, contemporary sounds

by Paul Fisher

At the age of 5 or 6, Cassandra Wilson recalls hearing the music of Miles Davis for the first time. “Sketches of Spain” was part of her father’s record collection, himself a jazz musician and was one of the records he would often play in their home in Jackson, Mississippi.

Cassandra Wilson

In the mid-’80s, as a burgeoning New York based jazz singer, Wilson once opened for Davis at a jazz festival in Chicago, although she was too afraid to meet and tell him of his influence on her. On her latest album “Traveling Miles,” she finally pays tribute to Davis.

“I believe it’s important for all musicians to pay homage and give up props to their inspirations, and Miles has been ever-present for me,” she says. “He’s always been there, even after he passed away.”

Wilson tackles some songs composed and recorded by Davis, although it is far from being simply a tribute album of covers. Instead she adds lyrics to compositions both from his straight-ahead acoustic band albums as well as his electric fusion-funk ones. Her arrangements of the jazz giant’s material are inspired by Davis’ lyrical and sparse approach, as are her own four compositions, including the album’s title track.

“Miles Davis is more than a man for me now. He’s a metaphor of exploration, movement, creativity, being on the cutting edge, all of those things,” she says.

Like Davis, Wilson has always followed her own eclectic path. Hailed by critics as the greatest female jazz vocalist of her generation she rejects category, choosing to call herself simply a musician. She belies the old jazz diva image of fronting a big band or smooching over an intimate trio.

Instead she creates a rural atmosphere. The songs, which draw inspiration from the folk and blues repertoire as much as they do from jazz, are stripped down to their bare essentials and given her own stamp.

“I think people tend to forget what jazz was like in the beginning,” she told The New York Times. “It’s not a form of music that came out canonized and etched in stone. It comes from people absorbing what they live. So I don’t have a problem doing music that’s popular. Billie Holiday and even Charlie Parker interpreted what was known as the popular music of that time. I don’t see any difference between that and what I’m doing.”

On her breakthrough album and first for the Blue Note label, “Blue Light ‘Til Dawn,” she boldly reinterpreted songs by Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and Robert Johnson. Her second album for the label, “New Moon Daughter” won Wilson a Grammy Award in 1997 for best vocal jazz performance.

Songs on “Traveling Miles” are in a similar vain to these previous folk/roots efforts. Her voice has never sounded better, yet she was without one of the creative forces that turned her first two albums for Blue Note into such successes, producer Craig Street. His schedule was full, so Wilson took on the producer’s role with, she admits, some trepidation. It is a role however in which she fits admirably, as well as being bandleader, arranger and composer.

Familiar names from her past albums include bassist Lonnie Plaxico and guitarists Marvin Sewell and Kevin Breit. Guests include brilliant alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, former Davis collaborator Dave Holland, Pat Metheny and Afropop singer Angelique Kidjo.

Cassandra Wilson at Blue Note, Tokyo, Feb. 12th-Feb. 17, two sets nightly, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. (except 12th, 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m.). Charge is 8,000 yen. Reservations and information (03) 5485-0088. At Blue Note Osaka, Feb. 9-10, (06) 6342-7722. At Blue Note Fukuoka, Feb. 6-7, (092) 715-6666.

If you like your jazz singers in the classic mold, and the repertoire mostly ballads, then another Wilson, Nancy, might be more to your taste. Nancy Wilson is a survivor from the “Golden Age of Song” from the same school as Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan. Born in 1937 in Chilicothe, Ohio, she began singing in church choirs, but was soon listening to Nat King Cole, Lavern Baker and “Little” Jimmy Scott.

Nancy Wilson

Her first hit came in 1962 with Cannonball Adderley on “Save Your Love For Me” and she had several big selling singles in the mid-’60s, including the Grammy award winning “How Glad I Am.”

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s she continued to perform and record regularly, and was particularly popular in Japan where she won awards and recorded for Japanese labels. To date she has over 60 albums to her credit.

Nancy Wilson at Blue Note, Tokyo, March 5-10. Two sets nightly from 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., 8,000 yen. For reservations, call (03) 5485-0088. At Blue Note Osaka, Feb. 28-March 3, (06) 6342-7722. At Blue Note Fukuoka, Feb. 26-27, (092) 715-6666.

Jimmy Smith is a jazz legend who is still going strong, and an influence even today. For over 45 years, he has been playing the Hammond B-3 organ with his distinctive style which combines be-bop with soulful and funky R&B. His trademark technique involves playing a walking bass line with his feet, chords with his left hand, and solo “horn” lines with his right.

Jimmy Smith

Smith was born in 1928, in Norristown, near Philadelphia. Originally he played stride piano before switching to the organ in 1953. Self-taught, he experimented with numerous drawbar combinations before discovering the sound that he wanted. He utilized only the first three drawbars, the percussion feature of the Hammond B-3 model introduced in 1955, and cut the tremolo. Several other organ players were to emerge in the following years, but Smith was always the leader and the most enduring.

He made his acclaimed New York debut in 1956 and subsequent appearances at Birdland and the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival solidified his reputation. He toured extensively through the ’60s to the mid-’70s before moving to Los Angeles and opening his own club. He resumed touring in the 1980s and recorded for Blue Note in collaboration with several of the label’s artists such as Lee Morgan, Lou Donaldson and Stanley Turrentine. Later, on the Verve label he combined his incredible power and energy with the resources of a big band.

Smith has also been acknowledged as an influence on the acid jazz scene and today finds himself as a heavily sampled musician.

In Tokyo, Smith will be joined by long-time collaborator guitarist Russell Malone, in a quartet also featuring saxophone and drums.