Quick: Name the best jazz recording of 1993.
For me, there was no contest: Cassandra Wilson's "Blue Light 'Til Dawn," an album that sounded like nothing else in jazz that year (or any other) and established Wilson as one of the pre-eminent jazz vocalists of our era.
The recording altered the arc of Wilson's career, opening her up to new sounds yet to come and placing her at the forefront of developments in American music. For with its heady mix of jazz improvisation, African chant, historic blues and uncommonly atmospheric instrumentals, "Blue Light 'Til Dawn" proved that it was possible for a singer to span epochs and genres while simultaneously appealing to connoisseurs and the general public alike.
After its release, Wilson found herself appearing on "Late Show With David Letterman," "CBS This Morning," "Charlie Rose" and other national TV outlets that rarely welcome jazz, then or now.
"I was very surprised – everyone around me was very surprised," says Wilson, who's touring the world to celebrate the recent 20th anniversary of the album and brings that music to SPACE in Evanston on Sunday.
"Everything happened so fast. I was thinking about a new direction, a new sound, a new approach, a way to bring together … what I thought were disparate elements in my personality. How to reconcile the guitar playing/folk singing with the singer (who) transcribed Bird solos, (who) at the same time seemed like two different personalities."
Before "Blue Light 'Til Dawn," in other words, Wilson had pursued at least two parallel musical paths: cutting-edge experimentation and deeply rooted, thoroughly accessible Americana. Having sought guidance in the early 1980s from pianist Ellis Marsalis and saxophonist Earl Turbinton in New Orleans, where she worked as an assistant public affairs director at a local TV station, she headed to New York in 1982 and joined forces which innovators such as saxophonists Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, bassist Lonnie Plaxico and pianist Geri Allen. All were key players in what would become the much-admired M-Base Collective.
Yet in 1988, Wilson scored wide popular acclaim with "Blue Skies," an album of standards by Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Jimmy Van Heusen and other master songwriters of a distant past.
Lesser artists would have chosen to capitalize in the commercial success of that recording with "More Blue Skies," or something of the sort, but Wilson declined. As she told me at the time, "There was a lot of recognition that came out of that, but then I felt, 'OK, I've done this. Enough.'"
Says Wilson today, "I think I did the ('Blue Skies') album to show people, to show the audience what my background was, what the foundation is. And so after I did that, I said, 'OK, now here are my credentials, I'm going to move forward, if you don't mind.'"
To Wilson's good fortune, and ours, Bruce Lundvall signed her to Blue Note Records and gave her time and latitude to try something new. Wilson leapt at the opportunity and engaged Craig Street – a construction worker with musical experience who never had produced a record – to help her create what would become "Blue Light 'Til Dawn."
The result was stunning, Wilson transforming historic blues such as Robert Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail" and "Come On In My Kitchen," the standard "You Don't Know What Love Is" and Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey," while also including moody songs of her own, most notably the title track. The inspirations for this music were far flung, but it was all held together by Wilson's throaty alto, honeyed vocal tone, slow-and-easy tempos and strangely alluring ways of stretching a phrase.
Yes, there were echoes of Betty Carter, Carmen McRae and Billie Holiday in this music, but nothing so much as Wilson's deeply autobiographical way of interpreting a song: An artist born in Jackson, Miss., was infusing just about everything with the sound of the South. Folk and blues, jazz and pop, past and future converged in this singular album.
"I think if I were going to a psychiatrist, you would call it a breakthrough, a great awakening, because I was able to reconcile those two personalities that I had," adds Wilson, referring to her populist and experimental instincts.
Even so, "It was scary at times," she adds. "I remember having a bit of doubt and expressing that to Craig Street. And there were some moments when I was truly afraid that I would lose an audience. (It was) definitely a leap of faith."
"Blue Light 'Til Dawn" turned out to be not just a dramatic step forward for Wilson and for jazz, but also a gateway to further revelations. Its follow-up, "New Moon Daughter," proved still more daring, Wilson recasting classics such as Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and the searing "Strange Fruit," while continuing to showcase her own idiosyncratic songs.
And Wilson kept on inventing. She brought hypnotic rhythms and a touch of urban funk to music of Miles Davis in "Traveling Miles," re-imagined standards of many genres in "Loverly," dug deeply into Delta blues in "Belly of the Sun" and otherwise ranged freely among genres and musical dialects.
But after all that, why did she want to revisit "Blue Light" in particular?
"It's been 20 years, and I wanted to celebrate," says Wilson. "It's a celebration of a very special time in my life. Just so many things happened that I'm appreciative of, and I wanted to express that.
"There are a lot of life lessons that happened," continues Wilson, who next plans to record a reflection on music of Holiday tentatively titled "Coming Forth by Day."