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A Porch in the Park: Cassandra Wilson & Olu Dara

           

I spent the last few days in New York. While there, I was too busy to do a number of things that normally make up my returning to the city. On Friday afternoon, though, I finally had the opportunity to do something not related to the conference I was attending.

First, I met my friend Nicole at Film Forum to see a restored print of Bruce Weber’s Let’s Get Lost (1988), a stylized black-and-white documentary that loosely chronicles the life and career of trumpeter Chet Baker. There are a number of problems with the film, among them the difficulty of determining the historical provenance of different clips (is what’s on screen from the ’50s? the mid-’80s?), the inordinate amount of time devoted to allowing Baker’s exes to snipe at each other and the inclusion of pop culture figures like Chris Isaak and Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) in staged scenes. There are elements that make the film useful as a historical document, though. Among the minor ones are a brief scene (when it took place isn’t clear) where we get to see a younger Andy Bey playing piano and singing (perhaps with the Bey Sisters). More importantly, viewers can see, in the most stark terms, the toll that years of heroin abuse took on Baker’s health and his musical ability.

After leaving the theatre, we headed uptown for the inaugural concert in this year’s Central Park SummerStage series. On the bill for the evening were two of my favorite musicians, who, though they had been actively performing for years, achieved their greatest prominence in the 1990s: Olu Dara and Cassandra Wilson. In the World CD CoverThe former is a cornetist, singer and guitarist who has been one of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and a member of the David Murray Octet in addition to collaborating with the choreographer Dianne McIntyre. His first recording under his own name—In the World … from Natchez to New York—was released only in 1998. The latter was in the 1980s associated with Henry Threadgill and with musicians from the M-BASE collective and worked as a straight-ahead jazz singer, who sometimes sounded a little too derivative of Betty Carter. Her breakthrough came after the release of the album Blue Light ’Til Dawn (1993),Blue Light… CD Cover which featured strikingly original takes on classic popular songs as diverse as Robert Johnson’s “Come on in My Kitchen,” Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey,” and the Stylistics’ “Children of the Night.” In the years since, she has continued to chart an eclectic path for herself, producing music that is all the more interesting because it inhabits its own stylistic universe.

While Nicole was less than taken with Dara’s opening set, I found it really enjoyable—as did some of the other people seated near us. What seemed at first to be excessive informality turned out to be part of an engaging show. Dara’s band took the stage and started playing while those of us in the audience waited for the leader to take the stage. When he arrived, rather than sing the song the band had set up (“Okra”), he started by welcoming the audience and, in particular, some friends and family members (including five “ex-wives”) who were supposedly there. Then he started having a conversation, or so it seemed, with an audience member about people they knew in common. Only after about five minutes of one-sided banter (we couldn’t hear his interlocutor from our position) did he begin to sing, frequently interrupting the song as recorded with more dialogue. Nicole clearly wanted to hear the songs as she knew them, but I really loved Dara’s stream-of-consciousness, sometimes bawdy delivery. “Rain Shower,” for example, became a song about how important it was for young black Mississippians to be “de-virginized” before they reached adulthood. In the story, Dara’s mother, more chagrined by his twelve-year-old virginal status than his father, suggested that her son get things going with the daughter of her friend Luvenia. Suffice it to say that the narrative about the son traveling ten miles in rain and mud for his rendezvous with the young woman might have been an elaborate excuse for the singer to rhyme “Luvenia” with “between ya.” As a punch line of sorts, it was remarkably effective.

Cassandra Wilson’s set also focused more on in-the-moment performance than on playing the songs as audiences had heard them on record. Both Nicole and I were a little concerned when Ms. Wilson announced from the stage that she and the “Go Tell My Horse Band” didn’t have a prepared set list: they were going to “play off [our] energy” and take requests from the audience. (I neglected to mention earlier that there were so many people present and standing in front of me, that I actually saw only about 2 minutes of the show. I had to be content with listening). I shouldn’t have been worried. She and the band—comprised of guitarist Marvin Sewell (her longtime music director), percussionist Lekan Babalola and a number of Wynton Marsalis group alums (Cyrus Chestnut, piano; Reginald Veal, bass; and Herlin Riley, drums)—negotiated the requests and took the music in different directions almost effortlessly. “Shall We Dance,” if I remember correctly, started with Wilson singing unaccompanied. When the band came in for the second chorus, her hard-to-follow phrasing was revealed to be partly a product of working in 7/4, rather than 4/4, time. And, as the end of that tune approached, she was heard singing/saying “two, five, one; two, five, one,” words which some of you (jazz) performers will know indicate that she wanted the band to play a tag at the end. The band handled everything flawlessly. Sewell was perhaps the second-brightest star last night, playing riveting solos and providing sensitive accompaniment on the bluesiest, jazziest, and most uncategorizable of tunes.

While Wilson’s set, at least what N. and I heard of it, was short on original tunes, the group performances of “Time After Time,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and “Wichita Lineman,” as well as tunes that started out as one song and concluded as another, was amazing. Like Olu Dara’s set before it, Wilson’s seemed to be about doing something more than re-presenting the familiar. For at least this listener, the concert was a wonderful study in what can happen when skilled musicians listen to one another and their audiences. Even more, it was a reminder of the wider connotations of a word many of us use to describe performance: play. While SummerStage might be a long way from Mississippi, both artists in their own ways turned the park into a porch with a large, welcoming front yard…

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