I slid my hand down her arm from shoulder to hand and she took it and shooked it and stayed… Hand in hand, there I was with Cassandra Wilson. For one of those seemingly long moments that stand for an eternity. This was when she came back from the stage downstairs after the main course. There she had just been giving me what I had come in for: to sort her out once and for all, to be bought into her sound for good, to let go the resistance to her moods that I’d been holding to for the last ten years, since I first heard and read about her, to finally get to taste that strange fruit that is her voice...
Scent of magnolia
sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell
of burnin flesh
There it was: a fruit as strange and as tasty as that of Lady Day, who first introduced me to that poem and song she made so hers. And she was in good company too: a sextet led by drummer Herlin Riley, with Reginald Veal on bass, Marvin Sewell on the guitars, Jason Moran on the piano and Lekan Babalola, a Nigerian whom she introduced as ‘African Royalty’, as the master percussionist. Riley (perhaps best known for his work with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra) also got a special introduction, as ‘Sir’ – and, heavens, how he deserved it! I got the chance to tell him just that and how great he was while repeatedly ‘tapping’ with gusto on his shoulder. He paid me the compliment with an autograph with Love…
That’s the thing about the Jazz Café, if you’re lucky enough, you can get an up-close and personal experience with the artists you come to see, while enjoying a nice meal if you happen to have booked a table upstairs in the restaurant – through which they happen to pass in their way to and from the stage. Initially we had been restless because the place was fully booked and we couldn’t get a view to the stage from the first table we got, but then got lucky enough to be moved (after the meal, which the music we were offered, specially Sewell’s spicy guitar sounds, made all taste like Cajun food straight from the bayous of New Orleans… By the way, in one of the very few occasions she addressed the audience she got us into the 'secret' of the right pronounciation of New Orleans...) to the best seats in the house – just upfront, overlooking the stage – from which we could enjoy the show as if we were right there in the stage as well… every single complicity movement and face expression composing that music body language which makes it live… and how we lived it… and played it! Specially the drums and percussion combinations by Riley and Babalola, wonderfully backed up by Veal.
She might say as well as Miles used to: “just give me a good rhythm section and my ego is satisfied”… In the ego place where Miles had the trumpet, Cassandra has the voice – that clear, calm and steady, yet at times thunderous, deep and wondrous voice, with which, together with her earthy body movements, bare feet and closed eyes, she takes us from a calm beach to the depths of the ocean and back again on an irresistible tidal wave. And, like Miles, she offered us ‘Time after time’ as desert. On her final return from the stage she stopped by again to give me that much loved autograph – she had appreciated my ‘African ululus’, which she said had made the evening special (it was the last of an European Exclusive residency at the Jazz Cafe')… And then there were all the looks and sayings of how much we looked alike… but that’s another story.
Strange Fruit - Cassandra Wilson