The closing concert of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival was given by jazz singer Cassandra Wilson, last seen here nearly a decade ago. The Mississippi-born singer responded to the large Hamer Hall audience with generosity, giving a long, two-act concert with extended improvisations from her five-piece band.
Known for her unusual arrangements of country, blues and folk songs, and with eighteen albums to her name, Wilson never rested on her laurels. Playing with time signatures and giving lots of space for her band to improvise and take solos, the barefoot diva gave loose reinterpretations of some of her most popular recordings: delicate versions of Jimmy Webb’s ‘Wichita Lineman’ and Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time after Time’, as well as her own compositions ‘Another Country’ and ‘Red Guitar’ (both from her latest album).
Her voice is remarkable, especially in the lower registers where, in spite of its depth, it is always feminine, sexy and lustrous. Even with the fiery sextet in full flight, her voice is intimate and her interpretation fresh and intricate. She transcends genres to make every song her own and imbue all with those Mississippi delta roots. The Miles Davis/Victor Feldman number ‘Seven Steps to Heaven’ was one of the highlights, given new life with fresh lyrics, and making the most of the original’s tricky rhythms.
In spite of her clear authority and powerful onstage presence, Wilson is a gracious performer, giving free rein to the consummate sextet, some of whom have been playing with her for 20 years. Before she appeared, the band opened with an instrumental version of Stevie Wonder's ‘The Secret Life of Plants’, led by Swiss-born Gregoire Maret on harmonica. Maret is an exceptional player, although he lacks Wilson’s magnanimity and is a little too eager to indulge in long solos.
Of the other musicians, Mino Cinelu’s drumming – on a kit that featured a central set of congas – is superlative: now incisive, now whispering, now exuberant. Acoustic bass player Lonnie Plaxico is rock steady, warm and undemonstrative. Guitarist Brandon Ross is also modest but infinitely versatile, adding melodic and rhythmic textures. Charlie Burnham on violin and mandolin is a quiet virtuoso, producing remarkable sounds from his violin, notably with wah-wah effects on ‘No more blues’.
Unfortunately, from my seat in the balcony, the overall sound was muddy and the bass booming, which made listening uncomfortable. The nuances of the vocals and instruments were often lost. Perhaps the band was over-amplified for the new Hamer Hall acoustics. It was a shame that such great music was marred by technical shortcomings.