If you have ever wondered what jazz might sound like it it were truly rhythmic, look no further than Thunderbird from Cassandra Wilson. Every since she signing to Blue Note records in 1993, she has been redefining and expanding the realm of modern jazz, adding everything from Bob Dylan to U2 into the mix.
For much of her career she has integrated pop and rock influences seamlessly with delta blues and other forms of jazz or blues related music. In 2002 with the release of Belly of the Sun, she had begun to experiment more with pop, rock, country and roots music. Up to this point her music was defined mostly by acoustic guitars and her fluid sensual voice. She continued her experiment with mostly rock and jazz influences on Glamoured in 2003.
When her 14th studio album Thunderbird was released in 2006, Wilson dropped the country and focused more on traditional black musical forms like R&B and pop. There were even elements of hip hop as this would be the first time any Wilson album would use loops and a drum machine.
Produced by T-Bone Burnett and Keith Ciancia, Thunderbird featured a stellar cast of musicians as session players including jay Bellerose on drums and Reginald Veal on double bass. Among them were guest like Keb Mo who helped give Thunderbird its decisively urban vibe.
Songs like ”Tarot’ feature subtle electronic treatments. While synthesizers, samples and loops would reveal themselves on occasion, there was no hiding the fact that this was still a blues album, just one that was able to fuse contemporary musical styles together better than most. Even Wilson’s trademark sultry single style was slightly altered with a falsetto sounding as if she would be singing for pop radio.
The rhythmic nature of the album comes out in songs like ‘It Would Be So Easy’ with its funky double bass and R&B/pop style percussion. More than a few tracks could have been R&B singles or singles period. ‘Poet’, ‘Closer to You’ or ‘Go to Mexico’, all could have been released, but Thunderbird had no singles, yet manages to reach #2 on Billboard’s modern jazz chart.
Despite the R&B/pop leanings of Thunderbird, it would be the blues tracks like the seven minute ‘Easy Rider’ or ‘I Want to be Loved that would excite the critics the most. Still its a treat to hear Wilson in a more R&B context and Thunderbird will all ways stand out in that regard for me.