On first listen, Cassandra Wilson's latest release, New Moon Daughter, seems like a sequel to 1993's Blue Light 'Til Dawn. The two albums share the same producer (Craig Street), the same core of musicians, the same basic sound (jazz-ballad singing in an acoustic country-blues setting) and similarly eclectic source material (Robert Johnson, Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell last time; Billie Holiday, Hank Williams and the Monkees this time). But if Blue Light was all about form, New Moon is all about feeling.
Wilson owes more than a little of her dark tone and elastic phrasing to Holiday, but she takes Holiday's "Strange Fruit" and makes it her own. Wilson slows the tempo and shifts the emphasis from jazz pop to acoustic blues, creating a brooding, mournful moan that is more literal than the original. Mortality is even more eerily evoked on "Death Letter," a Delta blues by Robert Johnson's mentor, Son House. Over a bass line borrowed from "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," a prickly acoustic guitar and a shivering electric slide create a deathbed atmosphere.
Dying has an entirely different meaning on "A Little Warm Death," a Wilson original and a euphemism for sexual orgasm. Over a light Brazilian rhythm, she croons, "Come have ... one little warm death with me tonight," and then improvises a duet with Charlie Burnham's fiddle as if the melody had gotten scrambled in the throes of passion. She brings a similar sensuality to the romance of Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark," U2's "Love Is Blindness" and Neil Young's "Harvest Moon."
If there's weakness on New Moon Daughter, it's the predominance of slow tempos; one wishes that Wilson could adapt her cool-jazz delivery to a variety of rhythms. Nonetheless, this is an album of such elegant melodies and emotion that Wilson should transcend the jazz genre as easily as Alison Krauss has transcended bluegrass. (RS 730)
(Posted: Feb 2, 1998)
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