Concert review: Cassandra Wilson at SPACE

Jazz singer Cassandra Wilson.

Jazz singer Cassandra Wilson. (Ojah Media Group / May 5, 2014)

It takes a brave soul to revisit a classic album that was released roughly two decades ago, especially when the artist in question is a singer.

Voices change over time, after all, and not usually for the better. Musical tastes evolve, as well, and what seemed freshly appealing a generation ago may sound quaintly historic in hindsight.

Remarkably, though, the years that have passed since Cassandra Wilson released "Blue Light 'Til Dawn" in 1993 have diminished neither the value of its repertoire nor the luster with which Wilson sings it, judging by her deeply considered performance Sunday evening at SPACE, in Evanston. Indeed, Wilson sounded newly inspired by the process of revisiting "Blue Light 'Til Dawn" and other works from a discography that includes several comparably significant recordings.

Currently touring the world to mark the recent 20th anniversary of "Blue Light 'Til Dawn," Wilson performed before a sold-out house and set the agenda from the outset, opening her first of two Sunday-night shows with the album's opening track, "You Don't Know What Love Is." It didn't take more than a few phrases to understand the nature of Wilson's instrument today, her alto sounding still darker, deeper and more plush than either memory or the recording itself suggested. Though Wilson cut some phrases shorter than one might have expected, the enduringly luxuriant quality of her voice affirmed that this was an interpretive decision, rather than one made out of technical necessity.

Much more important, however, than any of these considerations was the nature of Wilson's reading, her imploring phrases and audaciously slow tempo taking listeners to core meanings of the song. With Gregoire Maret providing plaintive commentary on harmonica, Wilson made "You Don't Know What Love Is" into a softly shattering lament.

The stripped-down blues of Robert Johnson test the emotional and technical resources of any jazz singer, which may explain why so few get near this music these days. But it long has been central to Wilson's vision, and she offered both Johnson works from "Blue Light 'Til Dawn." Wilson reveled in a rolling medium tempo in "Come On in My Kitchen," her voice showing more force and edge than before. Yet she drew on a completely different tonal palette for "Hellhound on My Trail," putting plenty of air in her sound, which gave her phrases a sense of floating above the beat.

As if to remind listeners that she had a life and a career before "Blue Light 'Til Dawn," Wilson periodically ventured away from its songs, most notably in the title cut of her 1988 album "Blue Skies." That collection of standards was a commercial breakthrough for Wilson but, to her great credit, did not lock her into formulaic approaches. She underscored the point with a reworking of the Irving Berlin vignette, her buoyant phrasings and exuberant – but unhurried – approach to rhythm representing practically the polar opposite of the Johnson blues.

A cheer went up from part of the audience when Wilson began "Last Train to Clarksville," presumably from listeners who were applauding not the Monkees' version but Wilson's, from her "New Moon Daughter" album. That release followed "Blue Light 'Til Dawn" and, in some ways, proved even more daring.

Rarely has "Clarksville" sounded as joyous, Wilson's bright sound and unstoppable rhythmic progress echoed by her band. Instrumental environment always has been a high priority to Wilson, and she surely benefited from the evocative work of her accompanying players, especially Lonnie Plaxico's melodically sensitive phrases on bass and Brandon Ross' pastels on acoustic guitar. At times, Wilson picked up her famous red guitar, offering warm tones and piquant dissonances.

She also surprised at least one listener by not singing the title track of "Blue Light 'Til Dawn," an original composition that's the most incantatory on the album. Then, again, Wilson always has reveled in the unexpected, so why should this show have been any different?

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

CHICAGO

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