Some albums just grow on you and so it is with Cassandra Wilson's latest,
Another Country. As with many other people Wilson had been to Italy and fallen in love with it so she went all out to evoke the country in the arrangements of the seven original songs she wrote for this album (which is fine), and also recorded
O Sole Mio (which is not).
We'll let that pass for a moment. Her partner in crime for this project is Italian guitarist Fabrizio Sotti, who gets second billing as a "featured" artist and also contributes a couple of acoustic instrumentals. The two share the production credit. There are no kit drums, and the other participants are percussionists Mino Cinelu and Lekan Babalola, bassist Nicola Sorato and accordionist Julien Labro.
The first problem is that there are perhaps too many rays of Tuscan sunshine bathing the music, much of which veers dangerously close to Sting with Dominic Miller territory. On the other hand if you are going to record an album in Florence, I suppose this is the effect you are probably after.
After listening to
Another Country a few times I found myself feeling slightly churlish for not liking a song just because it was melodically accessible, and also tuning in to the elements of the blues always present below the surface.
The versatile Wilson began her recording career working in an experimental jazz collective led by saxophonist Steve Coleman, and went on to become a Grammy winner for the Blue Note label.
Her eclecticism is part of her appeal. As well as rearranging the blues in a thoughtful and intelligent way, she is comfortable with the Great American Songbook, and equally so with country music. She also has an affinity for well-crafted rock and pop tunes, and performs Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell to advantage.
Landmark albums overseen by other artists in which Wilson was involved range from Wynton Marsalis' Pulitzer-winning jazz oratorio
Blood on the Fields, to Terri Lyne Carrington's recent
Mosaic Project, but the blues is ever present in Wilson's work.
The contrast in this collection between the mannerisms of European cafe music, and the jazz and blues chord changes that are second nature to Wilson, sets up an interesting tension that raises the project above the level of the easy-listening album it could easily have become.
O Sole Mio is the only cover - it would have been better omitted - with Wilson writing all the other songs and Sotti composing the two instrumentals.
As an instrumentalist, his contributions to the album range from a Pat Metheny-style solo and obligato on the opener
Red Guitar, to the African stylings of the closing
Olomuroro. His guitar weaves its way artfully and sympathetically around the vocal lines.
The Django Reinhardt influence, which it seems no continental European jazz guitarist of any substance can escape, is palpably present in Sotti's playing on the double-tracked
Letting You Go, and even his use of a nylon rather than a steel-string instrument for the lead part cannot quite disguise it.
A lot of time listening to Metheny albums has clearly also shaped his playing.
Deep Blue is reminiscent of some of the late-night solo acoustic guitar improvisations on
One Quiet Night and
What's It All About, while the acoustic guitar work on Wilson's Mitchell-influenced title track recalls
New Chautauqua, and the overdubbed electric part on the same song could have come straight off
Shadows and Light.
For Wilson's fans, Sotti's prominence may make this collection a little harder to get used to than some of her other albums, but they may find it worth the time.
Three other albums marking high points in Wilson's recording career.
(Blue Note, 1993): her Blue Note debut provided a template for Wilson's next few releases with a mixture of originals, blues - Robert Johnson's
Come on in My Kitchen and
Hellhound on My Trail - standards, and pop and rock tunes. Varied but balanced, it still sounds good.
(Blue Note, 1995): Wilson picked up her first Grammy, for best jazz vocal performance, with this eclectic collection which includes The Monkees hit
Last Train to Clarksville (a darker song than most people think) and Billie Holiday's
Strange Fruit, alongside songs written by Neil Young, Hank Williams, Hoagy Carmichael and Son House.
(Blue Note, 1999): Wilson pays tribute to Miles Davis in the company of a stellar line-up including Metheny, Steve Coleman, Dave Holland and Regina Carter. The tracks range from
Miles Runs the Voodoo Down from the
Bitches Brew album to Cyndi Lauper's
Time After Time, which Davis covered on 1985's
You're Under Arrest.