This year marks the 100th birthday of jazz icon Billie Holiday. What better way to celebrate one of the greatest singers of all time than to have one of her spiritual descendants do a tribute? Jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson has long been on our wishlist, but the stars never aligned – until now, that is. Tonight’s show not only finally brought us a long-sought guest, but also paid tribute to a true musical titan via songs from Wilson’s new Holiday-themed album Coming Forth By Day.
The set began quietly with “The Way You Look Tonight,” which Wilson and her 14-piece band (including an 8-piece string section) performed fairly traditionally, outside of the unusual choice of bass clarinet for Robbie Marshall’s solo. But she and her musicians stepped off the traditional path with “Don’t Explain,” guitarist Kevin Breit looping his instrument and applying slide and e-bow, while the rhythm section (including veteran bassist Lonnie Plaxico, who played on Wilson’s debut album) added healthy dollops of blues feel. A subtle singer who prefers to explore a song’s nooks and crannies rather than engage in acrobatics, Wilson is known for putting her own distinctive spin on classic material, and that’s the path she followed for the rest of the night.
“What a Little Moonlight Can Do” rode a samba rhythm, touched by Marshall’s flute and a gnarly electric violin solo from Charlie Burnham. “Crazy He Calls Me” shifted from Broadway flourish to jazz rock explosion, while “You Go to My Head” gained a funk undercurrent and a Breit solo that sounded like a soprano sax. The musicians put a subtle Latin spin on “All of Me” that turned into it into babymaking music, then masterfully manipulated the dynamics of “Good Morning Heartache,” Wilson taking a seat as the band swirled around her in collective improvisation. Perhaps the biggest highlight was “Last Song (for Lester),” a Wilson original that imagines the song Holiday might’ve sung at the funeral of her musical soulmate Lester Young had she been allowed. It was a beautiful tour de force, blending sadness at opportunities lost and joy for knowing a special someone. Wilson ended the set with a sardonic, defiant romp through “Billie’s Blues,” exiting the stage to raucous applause.
Naturally, the show wasn’t done yet – not without renditions of Holiday’s greatest hits. The encore began with “God Bless the Child,” given an almost pop/jazz reading with a slide guitar solo and Wilson’s distinctive take on the vocal melody. Then came a tribal drum beat and the sound of chains hitting the ground, which could only mean one thing: “Strange Fruit,” Holiday’s bitter ballad about the practice of lynching African Americans in the south. The song’s already haunted atmosphere bristled with dramatic strings and a particularly husky vocal from Wilson, before she picked up her Telecaster and clawed a skronky, feedback-soaked solo out of her helpless instrument, channeling the ghosts of lynching victims howling from beyond. To say this amazing performance brought the house down seems almost inadequate. We can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station.