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May 2, 2014 at 6:31 AM

Cassandra Wilson celebrates 20 years of groundbreaking eclecticism | Concert preview

American popular music flows in two great streams.

One, sometimes called The Great American Songbook, comes from Tin Pan Alley and Broadway and includes tunes like George Gershwin’s “Summertime.”

The other, sometimes called rock, flows from blues and folk and takes in everything from Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”

For decades, singers traditionally chose to swim in one stream or the other.

But in 1993, a daring young vocalist from Jackson, Miss., named Cassandra Wilson — who played Joni Mitchell songs in cafes but loved Gershwin, too — changed all that with an album called “Blue Light ’Til Dawn,” which has sold almost a million copies, to date.

Last year, Wilson released a 20th anniversary edition of “Blue Light,” with three live bonus tracks, and went on tour to celebrate. Wilson plays Seattle’s Triple Door Wednesday and Thursday, May 7-8.

“I always thought it was strange that the repertoire of a jazz vocalist had to be the standards songbook,” said Wilson by telephone, earlier this week. “That made me uncomfortable. The history of the music doesn’t start with Tin Pan Alley. It begins before that.”

Like with the blues. That’s why Wilson chose Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen” and “Hellhound On My Trail” for the album. Twenty-one years later, they still hold up, thanks to her distinctively smoky contralto, elastic phrasing and the unusual production by Craig Street, who over the course of the album used everything from Brazilian percussion to pedal steel guitar.

Wilson’s choice of Johnson was unusual not just for his genre, but for his gender.

“It’s kind of easy to take the material that’s already been mined by women and sing about the issues women have,” said Wilson, who has won two Grammy awards and is consistently voted by critics as the top female jazz vocalist. “It’s something else to go and take the lyrics of the men, and turn it into something else. I’m always about flipping things around.”

Unlike most jazz singers, Wilson plays guitar and counts Mitchell, whose penetrating song, “Black Crow,” is also on the album, as a major influence.

“It always fascinated me that she made (guitar) tunings based on the way she felt when she woke up in the morning,” said Wilson.

Wilson is playing a red Fender Telecaster guitar on this tour and will be accompanied by many of the same musicians who appeared on the album, including key guitarist Marvin Sewell.

She said she was excited about playing Seattle’s Triple Door for the first time.

“I love playing old burlesque houses,” she said.

Cassandra Wilson

7 and 9:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, May 7-8, at the Triple Door, 216 Union St., Seattle; $25-$50 (206-838-4333 or

Comments | More in Jazz | Topics: "Blue Light 'Til Dawn", Cassandra Wilson, The Triple Door


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