Rolling “Thunder”

Boston Globe, September 22, 2006

Cassandra Wilson has long since cemented her place as one of America’s great singers. Hers is a music of confluence, in which the blues, jazz, and pop provide aesthetic guidance that’s all the more powerful because it’s so free-ranging and loose. On her latest album, “Thunderbird,” the Mississippi-bred, New York-seasoned Wilson turns to material that’s distinctly Western in spirit, evoking Native American symbolism, prairie expanses, and the open road. An inspired collaboration with producer T-Bone Burnett, of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack fame, “Thunderbird” laces Wilson’s famously smoky tone with contemplative slide guitars over relentless grooves: The result is a music that lingers even as it moves ahead, like clouds in an easy wind.

“Thunderbird” came out in April, but Wilson, who lives near New York but spent much of the year in her native Jackson, Miss., is touring behind it only now. Her five-city East Coast stint brings her to the Berklee Performance Center tomorrow, before she heads to Europe. We spoke to her by phone as she prepared to launch the tour.

Q. How did you connect with T-Bone Burnett?

A. We met several years ago. He had just done the soundtrack for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” which I enjoyed very much. And so I kept him in the back of my mind. When it came time to select producers for this new album, he was at the top of the list, and I’m very fortunate that Blue Note was able to talk to him.

Q. Why “Thunderbird”?

A. I came across it accidentally, at a party. I was having a tarot reading, and it was a pagan tarot, and it said that I had seen the thunderbird of Native American mythology.

Q. Maybe it’s because of the title, or just the whole propulsive feeling of the album, but it feels a lot like the open road, that classic image of Americana.

A. It is very much in the spirit of Americana, but with twists to its various elements. I think that the whole Native American portion is part of the root of Americana, but it’s missing in our stories. That wide open prairie feeling symbolizes being in awe of nature.

Q. But in Americana, there’s a narrative of conquest, right? And blues and jazz come in large part from an oppositional place. How does this opposition work itself out for you?

A. Well, it may be a Hegelian thing where there’s a thesis, an antithesis, a synthesis, and then it rolls over into a new thesis. It’s fascinating to me. It’s true, people think of Americana and it’s Woody Guthrie, Dust Bowl music. But that’s a myopic vision, it’s much broader than that. If you dig deeper and see how the music moved and who was involved, you see the role of the troubadours, the blues travelers who spread a certain style, a very improvisational view of the world.

Q. The first song builds on a sample that comes from New Orleans. And New Orleans is central to Americana.

A. Yes. There are parts of Americana that people tend to overlook. The whole tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians is so much a part of Americana, and it’s such a powerful thing.

Q. Have you been to New Orleans since the storm?

A. Yes, I have, twice. It’s really painful, and difficult to see. Especially if you’ve had a love affair with the city. When you see it you can’t imagine how it can be fixed. You can’t rebuild the city as a Disneyland. If you don’t rebuild the Ninth Ward I hate to make it sound simplistic, but a whole community has to live for the music to be there.

Q. Do you feel like a Southerner?

A. Very much. I feel like a Southerner to the core.

Q. Do you feel like a blueswoman?

A. Yes. A blues jazzwoman or a jazz blueswoman. I don’t know which comes first, they’re so intertwined in my DNA.

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