Cassandra Wilson salutes Lady Day on ACL’s 41st season

Acclaimed jazz star Cassandra Wilson makes her Austin City Limits debut celebrating the music of “Lady Day” by performing songs from Coming Forth by Day, a tribute to jazz and blues legend Billie Holiday for the centennial of her birth.

Hailing from Jackson, Mississippi, multiple Grammy-winning artist Cassandra Wilson has been named “America’s best singer” by Time Magazine. Coming Forth By Day, Wilson’s nineteenth studio album, was released in 2015 to wide acclaim, with the Associated Press calling the jazz innovator a “masterful interpreter of songs,” and The New Yorker writing, “Cassandra Wilson, jazz’s reigning diva, puts a post-modernist spin on classic Holiday performances.”

Joined by a six-piece band, and an eight-piece string section, Wilson digs into the Holiday songbook in her first-ever ACL appearance, taking viewers on a spellbinding journey through lush soundscapes that conjure the spirit of “Lady Day.” “The idea was to find her essence, the sacred center of her spirit and bring it through our treatment of her songs,” says Wilson. She chooses songs that span Holiday’s abbreviated career to probe beyond her personal tragedy and honor her beauty, genius and craft. Beginning with a traditional take on “The Way You Look Tonight,” the singer steps off the path for “Don’t Explain” and “You Go To My Head,” putting her distinctive spin on classic material. Wilson masterfully manipulates the dynamics of “Good Morning Heartache,” taking a seat as the band swirls around her in collective improvisation. A set highlight is “Last Song (for Lester),” an original tune penned by Wilson for Holiday’s musical soulmate, saxophonist Lester Young, imagining the song Holiday might have sung at his funeral had it been possible. It’s a beautiful tour de force, blending sadness at opportunities lost and joy for a special bond.

Wilson closes out the breathtaking set with a sardonic, defiant romp through “Billie’s Blues,” exiting the stage to rapturous applause. A tribal drum beat and the sound of chains hitting the ground signals her return for “Strange Fruit,” Holiday’s bitter ballad about pre-civil rights era lynchings. The song’s already haunting atmosphere bristles with a new tension, a sudden surge of strings and a dramatic vocal from Wilson, capped by the singer’s feedback-drenched solo wrung from her shrieking Telecaster, channeling the howling ghosts of victims from beyond and invoking the struggles of today.

“I’ve been a fan of Cassandra’s magical vocal stylings since her first record, and I’ve always dreamed of the day when she would grace the ACL stage,” says ACL executive producer Terry Lickona.  “The fact that she chose to come honor Billie Holiday on our show made it that much more special – lending her own unique voice to Billie’s remarkable repertoire.”
Tune in this weekend for this episode, and, as always, check your local PBS listings for the broadcast time in your area. Go to the episode page for more info, and don’t forget to click over to our Facebook, Twitter and newsletter pages for more ACL info. Tune in next week for the ACL debut of Sturgill Simpson and the return of Asleep at the Wheel.