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Cassandra Wilson: Subtle singer, subversive songwriter and 2022 NEA Jazz Master

Cassandra Wilson at Newport Jazz Festival
Jonathan Chimene
Cassandra Wilson at Newport Jazz Festival

Cassandra Wilson has the kind of haunting voice that you can instantly recognize on the radio, deployed in songs and interpretations that are often subversive. As a vocalist, guitarist and songwriter she has continued to expand the notion of what jazz can be; for these reasons among many others Wilson was recently given this nation's highest honor for improvising artists, joining the 2022 class of NEA Jazz Masters.

This episode of Jazz Night in America travels through the Wilson's story leading up to that pinnacle — from her formative years in Jackson, Miss.; her decades-long friendship with singer-songwriter Rhonda Richmond; to New Orleans, where she apprenticed with legendary drummer James Black and to New York, where she fell in with the "outcasts" in M-BASE. We'll consider how she learned to turn music upside-down with avant-gardists like Henry Threadgill (recently named an NEA Jazz Master in his own right) and we'll hear how she reconnected to her Delta roots while creating the 2002 album Belly of the Sun.

In a past episode, Jazz Night had spoken with one of Wilson's collaborators, producer Nick Launay, about their 2015 Billie Holiday tribute Coming Forth by Day, and the retroactive influence of jazz and trip-hop on that album. To produce this record with Wilson, Launay and Wilson used bands like Portishead and Massive Attack as reference points to push the limits of Holiday's music. We hear some of that music live on stage in Washington D.C.

But taking on Billie Holiday was only the latest installment in the singer's own griot-like tradition of storytelling; riffing on the original, it's never the same twice. Whether Cassandra Wilson takes on a popular standard or original work, her vocal approach finds power in textures and subtle tones. "I'm not a loud singer," she told the NEA, "I love nuance and I love digging inside of a lyric and turning it and twisting it so that it has a certain effect on the listener and also an effect on me."


"Death Letter" from New Moon Daughter

Musicians: Cassandra Wilson, vocals; Brandon Ross, acoustic guitar; Kevin Breit, electric guitar, banjo; Mark Anthony Peterson, bass; Dougie Bowne and Cyro Baptista, percussion

"Road So Clear" from Belly of the Sun

Musicians: Cassandra Wilson, vocals; Rhonda Richmond, piano, vocals; Olu Dara, trumpet; Mark Peterson, bass; Marvin Sewell, electric guitar; Xavyon Jamison, drums; Jeffrey Haynes and Cyro Baptista, percussion

"Darkness on the Delta" from Belly of the Sun

Musicians: Cassandra Wilson, vocals; Abie "Boogaloo" Ames, piano

"My Corner of the Sky" and "Don't Look Back" from Live

Musicians: Cassandra Wilson, vocals; James Weidman, piano and keyboards; Kevin Bruce Harris, bass; Mark Johnson, drums.

"Don't Explain" and "Billie's Blues" from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Musicians: Cassandra Wilson, vocals; Robby Marshall, tenor saxophone and clarinet; Charlie Burnham, violin; Kevin Breit, guitar; Jon Cowherd, piano; Lonnie Plaxico, bass; John Davis, drums.

Set List:

  • Death Letter (Son House)
  • Road So Clear (Rhonda Richmond)
  • Darkness on the Delta (Jay Livingston, Al J. Neiburg, Marty Symes)
  • My Corner of the Sky (Cassandra Wilson)
  • Don't Look Back (Jean-Paul Bourelly, Cassandra Wilson)
  • Don't Explain (Arthur Herzog, Jr., Billie Holiday)
  • Billie's Blues (Billie Holiday)
  • Credits: Writers and Producers: Camilo Garzón and Alex Ariff; Consulting Editor: Katie Simon; Concert Engineer for "Don't Explain" and "Billie's Blues": Duke Markos; Host: Christian McBride; Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Senior Director of NPR Music: Keith Jenkins; Executive Producers: Anya Grundmann and Gabrielle Armand.

    Special thanks to 1504 Productions, Josephine Reed, and the team at National Endowment for the Arts.

    Copyright 2022 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.

    Camilo Garzón
    Camilo Garzón