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Traveling Miles, vocalist Cassandra Wilson’s tribute to Miles Davis, got off to a rough start following its initial conception two years ago as a Jazz at Lincoln Center-commissioned project. Wilson started out attempting to explore the many facets of Miles’ repertoire, write new arrangements and lyrics, and compose new songs dedicated to him. Then her ambitions ran out of control, and the project, presented as a concert series at New York City’s Alice Tully Hall, was roundly dismissed as chaotic and self-indulgent. But Wilson has since chiseled it into a succinct album that amounts to one of the most gratifying jazz tributes of the decade.
This time around, Wilson takes on the task of producing herself, but like her previous two Craig Street-produced albums, this record has a panoramic scope and sparse instrumentation that allows Wilson’s balmy voice to stretch and slur phrases in her classic Southern fashion. The intuitive nature of her arrangements subtly and sexily brings out the hornlike qualities of her voice atop spidery guitar lines, robust acoustic bass, and undulating percussion. Like Blue Light ‘Til Dawn and New Moon Daughter, this album emphasizes nuance over exploding solos. But when solos do occur, as in violinist Regina Carter’s shimmering performance on “Seven Steps,” they heighten the music’s sense of drama and suspense.
Wilson approaches Miles with the same inventiveness Miles showed on his 1974 Duke Ellington homage, Get Up With It. Like Miles’ tribute, hers is more reverential than referential. Whereas Miles emphasized Ellington’s mastery with tonal colors and expansive orchestrations, Wilson focuses on Miles’ sense of mood, time, and space. She avoids the easy route to his repertoire by detouring around his tribute to Gershwin, Porgy & Bessan album that musicians have exhausted to the point of caricature. On Traveling Miles, Wilson tackles heady bebop songs such as Wayne Shorter’s “E.S.P.” and the Miles- and Victor Feldman-penned “Seven Steps to Heaven,” as well as controversial fusion classics such as “Run the VooDoo Down.” In more cases than not, she’s chosen material that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to vocal interpretations.
Crafting meaningful lyrics to jazz instrumentals usually proves thankless, and, in any case, it takes a rare sensitivity to pull off. Too often, the lyrics are imbued with so much fawning that the songs become unbearable. And despite Miles’ love for vocal legends such as Betty Carter, Billie Holiday, and Shirley Horn, he publicly despised vocal interpretations of his music. In his 1989 collaboration with poet Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography, he quite violently expressed his disdain for Bob Dorough’s lyrical contributions on “Nothing Like You” from 1967’s Sorcerer and Randy Hall’s schmaltzy vocal performance on the title track from 1981’s The Man With the Horn. Fortunately, Wilson’s strengths as a lyricist are on par with her vocal abilities. She’s sidestepped the slavish sap and crafted poetic, sometimes deeply personal verses that echo Miles’ own sense of isolation and yearning. Like her choice of material, her lyrics are free of clichés.
Wilson makes her effort to put a new spin on Miles conspicuous by almost entirely leaving out brass instruments. Except for cornetist Olu Dara’s spiky asides on the opening “Run the VooDoo Down” and Steve Coleman’s splendid alto saxophone accompaniment on “Traveling Miles,” the album doesn’t contain conventional jazz horns. Instead of brass and woodwinds, Wilson relies on harmonica, slide guitars, violins, and her dark contralto to deliver the longing melodies. The stirring instrumentationmostly strings and percussionprovides a rustic environment that transports the essence of Miles from the bustling streets of New York to the dusty back roads of Wilson’s Mississippi nativity.
Though Wilson’s voice and arrangements are bewitching, Traveling Miles isn’t the most digestible of tributes, because it forces you to forgo almost all preconceived notions of Miles’ work and accept Wilson’s musical genius on its own terms. In some places, she’s recast the material so completely that listening for Miles may obscure the pleasure of the new arrangements. The original version of “E.S.P.” was a blistering bebop expedition, but Wilson slows the tempo drastically and transforms it into a ballad renamed “Never Broken (ESP).” The intertwining melodies from flamenco guitars, vibraphone, and violin create a swirling suspense as Wilson sings: “Every year brings us nearer to heaven/Every breath drawn in pain and pleasure/Re-embrace the many nights and days/Then and now I’ve loved/The circle is never broken” with a lulling Middle Eastern-inspired phrasing. Her retooling of Miles’ “Blue in Green” into the weeping romantic epiphany “Sky and Sea (Blue in Green)” is actually her second recorded draft. The first appeared on her 1986 debut album, Point of View. The newer arrangement has a richer texture and more emotional depth than the earlier version; the sauntering bass, creeping acoustic guitars, and eerie slide guitar give Wilson’s forlorn lyrics enormous potency: “Tossed between the sky and sea/We’ll sing until we find the harbor light/Our lives are bound with dreams of blue in green/Although it seems that ends draws nearer with each passing day.” The charming Disney classic “Someday My Prince Will Come” loses its innocence as the sustained chords for the slide guitar and sultry bass transform it into a ghostly dirge.
At first listen, the pop demeanor of Wilson’s originals “Right Here, Right Now” and “When the Sun Goes Down” sound out of place on a jazz tribute. Both songs, for all their folk-pop ingenuity, could easily pass as filler on her previous two albums. But in light of Miles’ mid-’80s investigations of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” they illustrate his fascination with the radio-friendly pop confection. If Miles’ ’80s output still seems insubstantial, Wilson’s takes on Marcus Miller’s “Tutu” and Lauper’s “Time After Time” artfully challenge that argument: The once glossy “Tutu” has been reconfigured in the spellbinding protest cry “Resurrection Blues (Tutu).” The heavy-handed production of the original has been replaced by a spooky arrangement of twangy guitars and brooding bass. Because Wilson sings the lyrics on “Time After Time” and brings out the song’s theme of lost love and despair, her version carries far more emotional weight than Miles’ various explorations.
If there’s one aspect of Miles’ aura that’s missing, it’s the sense of rhythmic urgency that distinguished his bebop and early fusion periods. Although Wilson engages in a more conventional up-tempo swing on “Seven Steps,” she paces herself languidly through the shadowy arrangements. For all its transportive power, Traveling Miles may seem threadbare to an impatient listener. Some of the imposing rhythmic complexities of her early M-BASE years would have served songs such as “Run the VooDoo Down” and “When the Sun Goes Down” well.
But out of chaos and controversy, Wilson has cut herself a gem. Traveling Miles comes not from a jazz diva who casually coos the melodies with heartfelt reverie, but from a redoubtable musician willing to probe deep inside both the material and her own musicality. In a decade saturated with commercially inspired tributes, Wilson delivers an homage marked by musical acumen and emotional integrity. CP
Cassandra Wilson performs at the Warner Theatre Sunday, April 11.