Regarded as one of the most accomplished jazz singers of her generation, Mississippi-born Cassandra Wilson returns to the fray with her nineteenth album in a recording career that began almost thirty years ago back in 1986. In that time 59-year-old Wilson has won two Grammys but more importantly established herself as a unique, sui generis artist who has redefined what it is to be a jazz singer. Indeed, Wilson, herself, while undoubtedly being part of the lineage and tradition established by her forbears Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln, has never fitted comfortably into the orthodox jazz singer mould. This new album – her debut on Columbia’s Legacy imprint – is a case in point: intended as a homage to Billie Holiday (whose centenary it is this year), ‘Coming Forth By Day’ is anything but a conventional collection of jazz standards. Wilson takes eleven songs associated with Holiday – including ‘Good Morning Heartache,’ ‘Don’t Explain’ and the chilling ‘Strange Fruit,’ a song about lynching – and while preserving the essence of the originals transforms them into something complete unrecognisable from Holiday’s own interpretations.
This is achieved by Wilson surrounding herself with several non-jazz musicians (in this case members of Nick Cave’s band, The Bad Seeds) and using producer, Nick Launay, whose CV includes production credits for rock acts Arcade Fire, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and …Nick Cave. The end result is something truly mesmerising and transcendent. Wilson’s sultry, majestic voice is a thing of dark yet luminous beauty, gliding over raw, brooding, almost ramshackle blues-inflected retoolings of key Holiday songs. Her voice is also exquisitely framed by some telling string arrangements by veteran Van Dyke Parks – especially on the album’s standout cut, ‘You Go To My Head,’ whose opulent string coda recalls the orchestral work of Hitchcock film composer, Bernard Hermann. An original Wilson tune, ‘Last Song,’ closes the album and finds the singer imagining Holiday’s final words to her good friend, saxophonist Lester Young, whose funeral she was unable to attend. It’s a fitting end to an album that highlights the fact that 100 years after her birth – and fifty-six years after her death – Billie Holiday’s music is still valid and continues to resonate with us in the 21st century.