Cassandra Wilson – Close To You (2009)

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Cassandra Wilson, unlike so many, never turns a cover tune into a math problem — trying to get it too note perfect, or make it add up.

Instead, her hypnotic, sensuous contralto transforms other people’s work, often giving it a power and meaning never dreamt of before.

That’s writ large on Wilson’s new Closer To You, set for release on April 7, which focuses on sultry rock and pop interpretations from across her seven-album stint at Blue Note Records. Included is work originally done U2; Bob Dylan, his old backing group The Band and his son’s act, the Wallflowers; Sting, Van Morrison, Neil Young and others.

There are bright surprises sprinkled throughout: Wilson trundles through the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville” with an oaky scat; uses rhythm to reimagine all of the Dylan-associated tracks — “Lay Lady Lay,” “The Weight,” by the Band, and Jakob Dylan’s “Closer to You” — and takes this sweet joy with “Harvest Moon,” an underrated Young gem from 1992.

She unleashes a gritty, foreboding take on Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand The Rain” — which, like “Tupelo,” is from Blue Light ‘Til Dawn, her outstanding 1993 Blue Note debut. Matched with a searching, country-blues signature by steel guitarist Gib Wharton, Wilson strips “I Can’t Stand The Rain” down to its unvarnished framework, revealing in this Memphis soul favorite the kind of frank and scary anguish associated with doomed genius Robert Johnson.

Not every tune is so completely remodeled. Wilson can’t add much to Sting’s 1987 album cut “Fragile” or Morrison’s familiar “Tupelo Honey,” staying largely within their already established moods.Yet even on Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” — credit (or blame) trumpeter Miles Davis for her move into the jazz canon — Wilson finds a way to uncover this level of sophisticated despair hidden well beneath Lauper’s fluorescent-coiffed idiosyncrasy.

A slowed down, melancholy take on “Love is Blindness” from U2’s 1991 Achtung Baby opens Close To You — part of a series of Blue Note releases celebrating the legendary jazz label’s 70th anniversary, scheduled to be appear throughout 2009. Wilson even does wonders with a Glen Campbell tune, a canny display of versatility. Maybe she isn’t a “jazz” singer at all, so much as a throwback to the days of the gifted interpreter.

It seems there’s almost no song Cassandra Wilson can’t solve.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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