Cassandra Wilson's latest tour is a six-week stint that stops in 25 different cities. She hit our own Symphony Hall a week ago and blew it up with tunes mostly taken from her latest work, Traveling Miles, a tribute to the career of the legendary Miles Davis. Wilson brought a six-member band with her which included two guitarists as well as two percussionists, her ever-faithful, ever-famous bassist and musical advisor, Lonnie Plaxico (who was in the Boston area in the fall with Ravi Coltrane before leaving to tour Japan with Cassandra) and a vibraphone/piano player. While not quite sold out, the crowd was receptive of and enthusiastic to her performance style and new tunes.
"I give my band members a lot of soliloquies," she joked to describe the limelight-balance that she has struck with the extremely talented set of musicians who are anything but backup. Each band member had a chance for repeated soliloquies throughout the evening. Their solos were the high points as well as rest periods for Wilson who left the stage during the longer solos and performed without a set break. Acoustic guitarist Marvin Sewell, who collaborated with Wilson on the song "Right Here Right Now" off of Traveling Miles, has brought a folk flavor to her sound and also added a little blues to the show during his longest solo.
Sewell's influence is evident in the Wilson remake of "Time after Time." That's right, Cyndi Lauper, but Miles Davis also interpreted the melody closer to the less-noted curtain call of his career. A slightly dismayed murmur from those who had not heard her new album flowed across the words "Cyndi Lauper" as Wilson introduced the piece. The fear quickly turned into mellow groove, though, as audience members regretted questioning for even a second Wilson's class. Her slightly-lower-than-contralto changes the song completely, as does Sewell's light acoustic background and Plaxico's soothing base line.
Set in the rear of the stage, a strange mix of various percussion instruments grew and changed throughout the night. In the hands of Jeffrey Haynes, everything from a steel pan to congas added tastes of Africa and the Caribbean at will, and he masterfully integrated his beats with sometimes-jazz, sometimes-folk, sometimes-blues tones around him. Even with a drummer and percussionist playing simultaneously, the sounds were never muddled and Wilson's voice was never muscled into the background.
Cassandra Wilson's concept of jazz involves exploration and combination. Each number in the show was a new trip. Even though they were primarily takes from her latest album and mostly in order from the recording, she and her band members improvised differently and even, at times, drastically changed the way the song was arranged. Traveling Miles takes old favorites and puts a new stamp on them; her stamp is forever open to new direction by her or her musicians.
She approached the project because she felt Davis' music and wanted to express her own special brand of soul through it. She was still feeling it during last week's concert; so was her band, and so was the audience. Critics who charge that Wilson has turned the work of a legend into pop music need only to spend a few minutes watching this lady to know that nothing has been watered down--it has merely found new tongues.