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All in all, the band was a mix of old and new, some folks borrowed, and they weren't afraid of the blues.
Cassandra Wilson made her appearance Wednesday night, Nov. 17, at Manhattan's Blue Note jazz club as she usually does, coming onstage after her band warms the crowd up for a few minutes. This was the second night of a brief two-night stand at the club to celebrate the release of her new album, 'Silver Pony.' After joining the group for a loose version of the Ellington standard 'Caravan,' she introduced the musicians and stated that this new album was a Cassandra Wilson Band CD, [but label] Blue Note made me release it as Cassandra Wilson CD."
Always a generous leader, Cassandra Wilson is one of those singers who really likes to be part of the band: Whereas some singers knock out verse after verse with only brief solos from her backing horn player or pianist, Wilson is content to sit down onstage and let combinations of instrumentalists play extended solos; or, if the spirit moves her, she'll dance, shimmy and slap her thighs to the rhythm as she did at times on this night.
All in all, the band was a mix of old and new, some folks borrowed, and they weren't afraid of the blues. A close approximation to the lineup on the new album, the musicians included drummer Herlin Riley, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, guitarist Marvin Sewell, pianist Jonathan Batiste, percussionist Lekan Babalola as well as special guests Ravi Coltrane on tenor saxophone and Gregoire Maret on harmonica. The first three have been playing with Wilson on and off for years now, and Batiste and Babalola appear on the new CD. Guest Ravi Coltrane also appears on one track off the album, but here he joined the band for the entire set. Maret has also spent time in Wilson's group and appeared on a few of her recent albums.
The set opened with the aforementioned 'Caravan,' arriving at the tune after minutes of improvisation that only drew to a close as the singer came to the stage and scatted a few lines, seemingly joining a party already in full swingthe band took off on the strength of Coltrane's strong soloing before her arrival. Wilson's own appearance nonetheless raised the energy level as she egged on bandmates and audience members alike.
From there, the band moved on to 'Forty Days and Forty Nights,' a tune popularized by Muddy Waters. The blues groove was firmly in place here thanks to Plaxico, yet it was the loosely percolating combination of the trap drums and hand percussion that gave the song a lighter feel than Waters' foot-stomping original. Keeping the song firmly in the blues, Sewell stepped up with a gritty solo using a metal slide. Maret also added a fine jabbing solo of his own, once again staking his case as one of the most talented young jazz players around and certainly a harmonica player who is second only to the great Toots Thielemans.
The laid-back vibe of the performance continued into the breaksWilson handed over the microphone more than once to let band members introduce the songs. Next up was 'Silver Pony,' an original co-written by the band. After Sewell's introduction, the band looked at one another for a moment before Wilson finally explained that a different person starts it each night." With that, Riley counted it off, but when the song failed to pick up speed, Wilson gave a quick look to the drummer, snapping her fingers at a faster tempo, which he and the band immediately responded to. After her vocal turn, Coltrane offered a beefy solo that wasn't particularly flashy or high energy but nonetheless jolted the song with newfound electricity.
The group returned to the blues once again for a version of 'Pony Blues,' which appears on the new album. Written by Charlie Patton, this song was the band at its bluesiest. Again, Sewell gave this song its earthy grit with a potent combination of slide guitar and a wah-wah guitar effect to create dark, drawn-out tones. The song stretched out, much as the band does on the new album, allowing Wilson and several band members time to shine.
The band goes from Wilson's latest Blue Note release to her first for a version of 'You Don't Know What Love Is.' Originally from her breakthrough 'Blue Light Till Dawn,' this live version was more upbeat than expected with a buoyant solo from Maret epitomizing the direction the band took. Wilson slowed things down at one point to take her solo, softly scatting different tones while deftly moving the microphone for additional textures.
The set closed out with a two-part version of 'St. James Infirmary.' The first part featured, after much joking around about what key to play it in, Batiste singing and Wilson playing piano. A New Orleans native, Batiste is a natural entertainer who enjoyed his time leading the band in this hometown standard, tossing in a chorus of 'Minnie the Moocher' and singing with a warm, syrupy drawl that recalled a young Allen Toussaint. There was a requisite second-line feel to this segment, but then the band paused and the two switched back to their usual roles, and the song came back with seriously funky groove driven by the drummers. This second part was close to the version on the latest album but with another great solo from Maret.
Watch the Cassandra Wilson Band's Live 'St. James Infirmary' Video From 2008
As the band played on, Wilson strode off the stage and danced her way down the aisle to the upstairs dressing room. It was an apt end to a set that had the feel of a jam session more than a performance. Wilson has honed this concept over the years, unwilling to make her performances anything but joyful affairs, and the effect was contagious. Audience members weren't necessarily dancing, but many of the faces leaving had a smile on them, proving the band succeeded in its main objective of making sure everyone had as good a time as they did.
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.