Jazz’s over-reliance on conveniently marketable tributes is an unfortunate reaction to the music’s miniscule share of the market. But not all tributes are created equal. Cassandra Wilson’s upcoming celebration of Billie Holiday’s centennial, Coming Forth By Day (Legacy) -- slated for release on Holiday’s birthday, Apr. 7 -- is an intriguing opportunity for a protean artist to honor one of jazz’s consequent and enduring artists. With her subterranean crushed-velvet voice and molasses phrasing, Wilson presents the new material on Sunday, Mar. 1, at Zellerbach Hall.
Last week, Wilson premiered the first track from the tribute, a spooky Van Dyke Parks arrangement of the devastating “Strange Fruit,” featuring Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ guitarist Nick Zinner. Judging by the intricately layered production, Wilson remains committed to taking these familiar songs into strange new territory. Not that the album necessarily indicates what she’ll be doing in concert; Wilson is touring with a stellar sextet featuring longtime collaborators guitarist Kevin Breit, bassist Lonnie Plaxico and violinist Charlie Burnham, who all played key roles on her classic mid-1990s Blue Note albums Blue Light ‘Til Dawn and New Moon Daughter.
The Holiday homage is just the latest transformation by an artist who has defined herself by redefining herself. Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, she started her career strumming a guitar and singing Joni Mitchell tunes in coffee houses. By the time she'd moved to New York in the early '80s, Wilson had hooked up with the M-Base Collective, a group of creative musicians blending urban funk and advanced jazz harmonics. Collaborating with M-Base leaders Greg Osby and Steve Coleman (who won a MacArthur “Genius” fellowship last September), she recorded a series of sonically dense, rhythmically aggressive albums for German record label JMT.
After a lot of soul searching, Wilson connected with producer Craig Street in 1993, reinventing her sound by tapping into her acoustic roots. Street also encouraged Wilson to widen her repertoire. Delving back into her past, she covered Robert Johnson’s Delta blues classic “Come On In My Kitchen,” Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow” and Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey.” Suddenly, any song was fair game, and she’s continued to turn each album into a creative adventure. Not every project is a Blue Light-quality revelation, but it’s always a fascinating ride.