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How does a singer in her prime follow a critically acclaimed album of standards (2008’s Loverly) – a Grammy-winner for Best Jazz Vocal Album that was recorded with a tight band of stellar musicians? If you’re CASSANDRA WILSON, with two such awards to your credit as well as eight previous Blue Note albums, each a distinctive marker along the arc of a wildly creative and singularly successful career, the answer is this: Challenge yourself anew. Get on a brand-new horse and ride it, so to speak. In this case, a Silver Pony (2010) – perhaps Wilson’s most ambitious recording project to date.
Silver Pony marked the first live tracks released by Wilson since 1991, and her first for Blue Note. The project ultimately revealed itself to Wilson as a fascinating hybrid of live and studio takes, blending the power of thrilling band in action before a live audience with its deep communion sequestered in a studio. And not just any studio, Piety Street Recording, co-owned by Silver Pony co-producer, John Fischbach. “I call him the magician,” says Wilson.
By the time Wilson got to thinking about Silver Pony, she had rented a new home in the French Quarter. She’d lived in New Orleans briefly before, some 30 years ago. In May 2009, Wilson lost her mother, who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. By October of that year, she and her band set out on a 13-city European tour, from Ludwigshafen, Germany to Guimares, Portugal.
“I thought the band had gotten to a point of critical mass,” Wilson says. “I was thinking that I really needed to document this specific group, this chemistry.” That chemistry is evident on two opening tracks, “Lover Come Back to Me,” and “St. James Infirmary,” recorded in concert in Granada, Spain. Both tunes were featured on Loverly, but whereas the former had a “1940s feeling” on the previous album, says Wilson, here it’s a “postmodern approach to swing,” driven by Herlin Riley’s powerful brushwork. And the latter deepens its up-tempo groove from Loverly, ending in entirely newfound musical territory. “There’s a natural evolution, once a song gets out into the air,” says Wilson, “something happens to it.”
Impressed as she was with the material recorded on tour, Wilson wished to get the band into the studio. “I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to play some of this stuff for the guys, let them listen to it, and begin to grow ideas out of what we’d done.’ And it really did happen.”
Wilson has long mined the possibilities of Delta blues and the influence of her Mississippi roots. Perhaps incessant DVD viewing of “Cadillac Records” on the European tour bus helped focus her band on that musical milieu. (“It seemed like every time we rolled off,” says guitarist Marvin Sewell, “someone cued that up.”) “Saddle Up My Pony” is a riveting version of a Charlie Patton tune with Sewell displaying his mastery of the form; “Forty Days and Forty Nights” updates Muddy Waters’ legacy with force.
The lilting live version of the bossa nova classic “A Day in the Life of a Fool” gives further testimony to the band’s prowess that night in Seville. And Wilson herself was surprised by what else happened in the studio: a funky, laid-back version of the Lennon-McCartney standard, “Blackbird,” and a tender rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic.”
Silver Pony’s finale doesn’t find Wilson riding off into the sunset. Instead, she sings “Watch the Sunrise,” a new song sent to her by singer John Legend for a long-sought collaboration, a shining and unexpected piece that sounds more like a glorious beginning than an ending.