I heard one song and fell in love. I was driving to the gym listening to NPR's Sunday morning programming and there was the sound of Cassandra Wilson's low and lovely voice accompanied by only a guitar and subtle percussion. It was spacious, dreamy and expressive. The song was “Red Guitar,” the lead track from Another Country. I have to say this now. Hearing this song on a July morning reminded me the summer I discovered Joni Mitchell. That was years ago – in Another Country in terms of time and place but here it is again - the clarity of the voice, lyrics that pin an emotion to space and time, and the austerity of the accompaniment. In the interview that accompanied the music Wilson, who spent her childhood in segregated Mississippi, said she had attended one of the first integrated high schools and discovered singer-songwriters like Joni and James Taylor when she started playing music with “the white kids.” Even as a high school kid she was already expanding a musical vocabulary that has included interpretations of everything from Taylor and Mitchell to Miles Davis. This album reminds me of Joni not in the sense that it is imitative or derivative but because it uses voice, sound and words create a feeling. “Wash my face with blue water, lay my head on white linens” are the first words you hear and that is the feeling this music will give you.
It becomes repetitious to say Wilson is taking a new direction here. She has done that on every album she has released, especially since she gave in to individuality and reeled in a wider audience in the early 90's with New Moon Daughter and Blue Light Til Dawn (which included a reinvention of Joni's “Black Crow”) and began to get braver and more eclectic with her song choices. She has recorded a lot of singer-songwriter material – Taylor, Mitchell, Dylan, Jesse Winchester, Neil Young, Jimmy Webb, and such – but this time she is the songwriter and this time the accompaniment is stripped down to one guitar, subtle bass and percussion, and accordion nuances that give it an other-worldly feel. Co-producer/collaborator Fabrizio Sotti's guitar is the other voice on the album. He plays eloquently and masterfully, shifting between blues, folk, flamenco, bossa-nova, and jazz. The album was recorded in New Orleans, New York, and wrapped up in Florence, Italy -- thus, the title. Or is it, as the lyric of the title song implies, that you can see another country in a lover's eyes. That song is about immersion, accented by haunting low extended guitar notes layered under a breezy guitar line that swerves between Latin and folk. It is one of several songs where she explores a brighter upper range of her usually smoky alto. “Almost Twelve,” has her singing breathlessly and lightly over a bossa nova rhythm, hoping she can make it to some mysterious event in time. The “Red Guitar,” she sings about in the opening track is a Telecaster, which Sotti evokes with a speedy but subtle electric solo. “Passion,” “When Will I See You Again,” and “Red Guitar” sound like an evolution of the jazz flavored direction some of the most influential singer-songwriters were taking toward the end of the 70's but with a sublimely higher level of vocal skills then we flip to mystical African groove for “Olomuroro.”
Wilson took piano lessons but fell in love with the guitar after her father encouraged her to teach herself rather than taking lessons because it would give her a more intimate perspective on the instrument. Her love for the sound of guitar strings runs deeply through these songs. You can hear it in the way her voice interacts with Sotti's stunning arrangements. There are two instrumental tracks, co-written with Wilson, that showcase him on solo guitar. They fit the mood of the album and make it more expansive, so you don't feel deprived of Wilson's voice during these interludes.
This is one of those albums that defies category. Is it jazz because she is a jazz singer? Is it folk/adult alternative? Is it blues? Pop? World Music? It's a little of all of these, but mainly, it is music that is both compelling and commercial in the best possible way. The elite jazz reviewers are loving it, but so is People magazine, which listed it as one of the 10 must-have albums for the summer right beside Usher's new release. And you know what? A lot of people will like them both. It's just a matter of diving in to something different and finding out that it feels like diving in to a pool of cool, clear water that you never want to leave.