Cassandra Wilson Belly of the Sun Review

Album. Released 26 February 2002.  

BBC Review

Ms Wilson continues her journey into Americana and the Delta Blues with this latest...

John Eyles 2002

In 1993, Cassandra Wilson released Blue Light 'Til Dawn, the album that redefined her career and made her a commercial success. Its blend of pop covers (Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell), delta blues and original compositions, combined with a stripped-down instrumentation, gave it a mass appeal rare in jazz. The formula was repeated on 1995's New Moon Daughter with more risks (yes, "Last Train To Clarksville") and success. It also led to Wilson getting flak from purists, unhappy that some of the songs were not worthy of a jazz artist. (Pah!) We must count Wilson's last album - the Miles Davis tribute Travelling Miles - as a one-off special project, so Belly of the Sun is the third part of the trilogy.

This was originally intended to be an entirely blues-based record, and the recording was largely made in the train depot in Clarksdale, Mississippi, to achieve a suitable ambience. Some of the most memorable tracks from those earlier Wilson albums are by Robert Johnson, and it's fair to say that she's effectively re-invented Johnson's music. Her voice has a husky-toned lower register that's a perfect vehicle to convey its emotions and nuances, but also makes the blues sexier than you'd believe possible, (witness her 1993 version of "Come On In My Kitchen"). On the finished version of this album, though, there are only three blues tracks; an effective reading of Mississippi Fred McDowell's "You Gotta Move" (best known to many in The Rolling Stones version), a rather hurried, throwaway version of Johnson's "Hot Tamales" and an atmospheric "Darkness on the Delta" with solo accompaniment from the veteran Mississippi pianist Boogaloo Ames.

Instead of more blues, what we do get here is another eclectic selection, including "The Weight", "Wichita Lineman", and Dylan's "Shelter from the Storm. Such well-known songs are often the first to grab attention on Wilson albums. But experience has shown that her own compositions (of which there are four here) stand the test of time. They are perfectly matched to her voice, she sings them with great personal feeling and intimacy, and they age well (an obvious candidate here is "Justice").

I hope that this album does complete the trilogy. While it is good, and will satisfy Wilson's fans, it suggests that this format is getting mined to exhaustion. Looking to the future, Wilson should build on the trilogy's strengths, maybe by making that all blues album, maybe by recording a songbook album (I'd nominate Van Morrison), or an album solely of her own compositions. With her talent, the sky's the limit. For now though, Belly of the Sun is good enough.

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