Twenty-two years ago jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson broke her own mold. Then a little-known though much-respected singer with a darkly resonant, lushly timbered voice, Wilson had eight albums and was mainly associated with the loose artist collective known as M Base, which included saxophonists Steve Coleman and Greg Osby and pianist Geri Allen. They combined electronic funk and soul with avant garde jazz and ’70s black arts sensibilities.
Out of this intense creative milieu Wilson re-imagined herself and her music in a broader context with acoustic instruments, an idea simultaneously more mainstream yet also experimental. She recorded more-contemporary pop and blues songs and also deconstructed familiar songs in drastically rearranged sonic environments. Blurring the boundaries with the 1993 album “Blue Light ’til Dawn” and its follow-up, 1995’s “New Moon Daughter,” Wilson opened the door to an era of modern genre-blind music. Never abandoning her jazz sensibilities, Wilson took on a diverse repertoire with sophisticated stylized production and instrumentation that often seemed as much indie rock or avant garde pop as jazz.
Wilson pulls all her influences together when she performs March 2 at the Harris Center, previewing her new album, “Coming Forth by Day: A Celebration of Billie Holiday,” which will be released April 7, the 100th anniversary of Billie Holiday’s birth.
“Coming Forth by Day” is an English translation of the title of the ancient Egyptian “Book of the Dead,” which was intended to help both the living and deceased in their journeys through life and into the afterlife.
Wilson acknowledges her debt to Holiday, the jazz vocal legend who died in 1959.
“I’m part of this legacy – I come from Billie by way of Abbey Lincoln,” Wilson said in the album’s liner notes. “I know I’m in that line of singers, but I also know myself. I purposefully did not listen to other tributes because my way is unique, and I serve it best by focusing on that.”
Wilson expanded her songbook to include folk, country and rock, but her sonic palette has been continually altered. Mixing deep blues (Robert Johnson’s “Come on in My Kitchen” and “Hellhound on My Trail”) with savvy pop covers (Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” and Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain”), the “Blue Light” album set a template bracketed by Wilson’s Southern roots and her contemporary modern influences. The next album, “New Moon Daughter,” opened with Holiday’s signature tune “Strange Fruit,” and follows that with the U2 cover “Love Is Blindness.” The record also includes Hoagy Carmichael, Hank Williams, Neil Young and the Monkees.
“Coming Forth by Day” dives into the Holiday catalog with classics such as “Don’t Explain,” “Billie’s Blues,” “Crazy He Calls Me” and “Good Morning Heartache.” Yet true to Wilson’s methods, these are interpretations that often distance themselves from the originals in textures and tempos.
The new record was produced by Nick Launay, known for his work over the past 10 years with Australian post-punk singer-songwriter Nick Cave. Launay has been associated with indie rocker darlings Arcade Fire and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. On the record are guitarists T Bone Burnett and Nick Zinner of the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, along with longtime Wilson collaborators Kevin Breit on guitar and Jon Cowherd on piano. The album features string arrangements by Van Dyke Parks, famous for his work with Brian Wilson, Tim Buckley, Little Feat and Randy Newman, among many others. Wilson composed one original for the album, “Last Song (For Lester),” an imagined reconciliation between Holiday and her musical soulmate, saxophonist Lester Young.
“‘Coming Forth by Day’ is an homage to the beauty, power and genius of Billie Holiday,” Wilson said in the liner notes. “A collection of musical spells, prescriptions for navigating the dubious myths surrounding her life and times, this record is a vehicle for the re-emergence of Billie’s songbook in the 21st century.”
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.
What: Coming Forth by Day: A Celebration of Billie Holiday
When: 7:30 p.m. March 2
Where: Harris Center for the Arts at Folsom Lake College, 10 College Parkway, Folsom
Information: www.HarrisCenter.net, (916) 608-6888