Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Guest Spot: Lyman Medeiros on Cassandra Wilson's Belly of the Sun (which he picked out for me a couple years ago...)

Few regular readers here will fail to associate Lyman's name with his musicianship but just in case, that's all well documented in various places but LMBass.com is a good place to start. Lyman's real claim to fame, though, is that he's my little cousin who over the course of years has kinda worked his way up through the ranks to what a good brother should be: totally in awe of me, more than good-looking enough to be seen on his arm most places and completely, totally smart, cool and accomplished. If Lyman weren't my brousin (like that?), he might actually be able to make a case for a restraining order against me. I love me some Lyman, his wife and relentlessly adorable son, his dog, his politics, his music. Take it away, Lym...

"Genre-combining is nothing new to jazz. You see, most jazz musicians playing today did not grow up listening to jazz, it has not been 'pop' music since the 1940s, as a result many of today's jazz musicians churn out records combing jazz with their love of funk, rap, R&B, pop, etc. So when jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson decided to make a record in an abandoned train station in Clarksdale, Mississippi to explore the Delta Blues and Roots music of her youth, the concept itself wasn't new. But the effectiveness in which she combined the two genres creating something truly special and unique makes "Belly of the Sun" a rare masterpiece.

Often a record that combines jazz with another idiom simply means a DJ cutting on some old Blue Note vinyl or an bebop sax solo over an indie-rock beat leaving you to realize that the two genres haven't been combined but merely superimposed. But on "Belly of the Sun" nothing is forced and every sound is natural.

The Weight -- Cassandra Wilson
You Gotta Move -- Cassandra Wilson
Waters of March -- Cassandra Wilson
Shelter From the Storm -- Cassandra Wilson
Wichita Lineman -- Cassandra Wilson

The album opens with a version of the Southern Rock classic "The Weight" by the band. Wilson's rich and seductive voice really captures a new essence of the song. The un-traditional jazz rhythm section of percussion, steel-string guitar, and upright bass set the tone for the rest of the record. "Darkness on the Delta" is a fantastic old Delta standard with Wilson being accompanied by a honky-tonk upright piano. It is slow and stride-style in character but the song refrains from sounding like homage with Wilson's contemporary phrasing. "Waters of March" is a A.C. Jobim bossa nova but with this new interpretation you would never know it, the song sounds like it was written for the Mississippi river. The closest we come to traditional Delta blues is "You Gotta Move", a slow foot-stomper featuring group vocals and slide guitar. "Rio/Only a Dream", "Just Another Parade", and "Shelter From The Storm" sound like tunes you would hear on a contemporary jazz record yet once again the banjos, percussion, and slide guitar seem to create an entirely new genre. Her slow, slow cover of "Wichita Lineman" is haunting.

I could go on and on about the thirteen tracks on this record, there is real innovation happening here. Its a mystery to me why this record didn't recieve enormous crossover success, but I chalk it up to one of the many unsung "hidden gems" that have been released over the years. I love "Belly of the Sun", it is one of my all-time favorites. I'm sure you would as well.


KHM said...

Just to be clear: are you hatin' on my Digable Planets' Flip Fantasia (Cantaloop)?

I ask because I have taken a LOT of heat for being dismissive of folks like, say, Robert Cray...in my opinion, they exploit the groovy hooks and clean up the grit and sell something much less real and call it the Blues. Those who would disagree say that so long as it gets people to acquaint themselves with the genre, its a good thing. And I suppose I could say the same of DJ's cutting over Herbie Hancock's Cantaloupe Island, right? 'Cuz I do like that track ;-) (funky, funky).

I wonder, too, what your take is on last year's Grammy winner, the man himself, Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters given your remark that Belly of the Sun is unique in genuinely mixing up the genres... not at all argumentative, genuinely interested. I have my opinion on that.

I agree that this is a phenomenal album but I know why it wasn't a huge crossover hit: its complicated rhythmically and melodically. Its a musician's record, in my opinion. Pity there aren't more people who could appreciate all the beauty here.

And you know, you can almost smell the Mississippi dirt when she sings "You Gotta Move"...its an amazing version of the tune.

KHM said...

woopsies! Flip Fantasia was done by Us3---one-hit nobodys. Still love it, though.

Lyman said...

I'm not hating on Us3, or any jazz DJ, all I'm saying is that they are superimposing genres in more of a post-modern setting as opposed to combining them like the electric rock fusion of Miles or the sound of "Belly of the Sun."

As far as "River" I was underwhelmed. I love Herbie and I love Joni but the record sounded a little over-produced for me. And all of the guest spots made it seem more gimmicky than innovative. I should listen to it again though, that's just an initial reaction from only a couple of listenings.

jill said...

Okay, new rule: all guest reviews have to include a cover of "Wichita Lineman."

...or at least something out of the Jimmy Webb songbook (but if someone actually covers MacArthur Park, I might just have to kill them. Worst. Song. Ever.)



KHM said...

Lyman: i agree on all points. I'm having a hard time articulating here so sorry to redirect on the River question:

While i did like that disc, i don't find the songs particularly re-imagined so much as kind of worshipped (for better or worse). It was pleasing to me but it might have been something much more had there been the kind of genre blending of the instrumentation, rhythms, respectively. I *think* you might agree?

Jill, i might now be completely finished with my exploration of Wichita Lineman. :)