Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu and Andrzej Pilarczyk
I think Cassandra Wilson may be about to record her first punk album.
Let me explain: While Wilson may be known as a jazz vocalist, the esteemed vocalist has never been one of those booming, big-band-backed standard shouters; more often than not, she goes the other way, preferring subtlety in both her vocals and in her background instrumentation. Even on past excursions into the blues of her native Mississippi, acoustic guitar was just as prevalent as electric.
But on Wilson’s latest visit to the Egg’s Swyer Theatre, the core members of a group called Harriet Tubman accompanied her. Check this band’s videos out on YouTube if you want a hair-raising experience – one completely in line with players whose resumes include out-there artists like Henry Threadgill, D.J. Logic, Living Colour and the Rollins Band. Tubman’s semi-free-form fusion is about as far from Wilson’s primary work product as Albany is from Alpha Centauri. But as bassist Melvin Gibbs told us in his introductory remarks, the “different kind of energy” Wilson & Tubman create together as Black Sun is what Wilson wanted when this partnership was formed.
Gibbs’ remarks weren’t as much an introduction as they were a gentle warning to longtime Wilson fans: This show was not going to be something they were used to. Those who didn’t get that message probably got it about thirty seconds into Brandon Ross’ whammy bar-intensive guitar solo during Tubman’s slow, Cassandra-free opening instrumental “Thought of the Sun.” The piece moved at a ballad pace, but drummer J.T. Lewis’ riotous fills more than spiced it up. Ross wasn’t going fast (He’d save that for later), but his long, sustained lines went right into your bone marrow. By the time Wilson “snuck” onstage, Ross had switched from guitar to banjo and was playing meditative lines over synth-like loops he’d laid down at the end of the first piece.
Gibbs and Lewis gave the meditation a backbeat, and Wilson stepped to the mic and added her unmistakable alto/tenor to “Hither.” The piece carried slight echoes of Cassandra’s more familiar work, right down to the seductive undertone that went with the lyric “Let me be your fantasy tonight.” But Tubman wasn’t morphing into Wilson’s latest back-up band; they kept their foot on the gas as Gibbs rocked a thunderous solo of their own while Cassandra stood back, clapping softly and smiling behind big round sunglasses. The now-complete Black Sun followed up with a funked-up take on Lennon & McCartney’s “Tomorrow Never Knows,” with Wilson playing a guitar of her own while Ross channeled his inner Vernon Reid.
Wilson’s been playing guitar onstage for a few years now, but she’s never been as aggressive with it as she was here, throwing a slashing solo at us during the song “Black Sun” that had more than a tinge of avant-guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer. At the end of the day, though, she was more than happy to just keep it to a few ringing chords or a funky rhythm while Ross did the seriously heavy lifting. But although Wilson’s haunting rendition of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and her wistful encore “O Solo Mio” (a duet with Ross) were up there with some of her best performances, Wilson seemed to thrive on being “just one of the guys” and leaving her jazz diva persona behind. As for her band mates, they fed off of her energy as much as she fed off of them, creating a group zeitgeist that pressed plenty of buttons and downright smashed a few others as the music swung dangerously (and satisfyingly) toward a mix of blues and heavy metal.
“Strange Fruit” was preceded by the whirling Ross composition “Overcome Some Day” that had Ross looping and diving over Lewis’ martial figure while Wilson found new and different ways to work the phrase, “I’ll overcome some day.” Gibbs had said they would be offering “our thoughts… our opinions” on plenty of subjects, and this piece went beyond the oppression inflicted on African-Americans: The piece could be applied to political oppression, economic oppression or sexual oppression. Wilson’s bawdy “Bow-Legged Man” dove deep into the blues of Wilson’s home state of Mississippi, while “Black Sun” examined the trek of what we now know as the banjo from Africa to Kentucky… so we got some history with our hearing loss.
Although Black Sun has been touring since last October, there has been no word of any recording coming from the partnership; the CDs for sale in the lobby were copies of Harriet Tubman’s 2011 Sunnyside release Ascension. If they do release any of the music developed during their time together, the Wilson fans who never saw this band in concert will have their hair blown clean off. But for those of us who had the pleasure of seeing this volatile unit work together, it will be a longed-for moment that we fervently hope will not disappoint, because this is one punk album we want right this minute!
HARRIET TUBMAN & CASSANDRA WILSON PRESENT BLACK SUN SET LIST
Thought of the Sun (Harriet Tubman)
Tomorrow Never Knows (The Beatles)
I’ll Overcome Someday
No Greater Sorrow (Harriet Tubman)
Strange Fruit (Billie Holiday)
Of Passage (Harriet Tubman)
O sole mio