This time of year is usually a great time for new music releases, but we all know that great musical surprises don’t come just in the autumn. Late last winter a new Cassandra Wilson release came and went. Unlike most jazz artist, Wilson is one of the few who’s releases can generate some buzz outside of usual jazz circles. I don’t know exactly why, but at the time I must have been musically pre-occupied with my usual winter slow core music and like a squirrel gathering nuts, I got Coming Forth by Day quickly scanned it and put it aside with the assumption that I would listen closely later. That close listen never came. By summer, I realized I had overlooked what clearly is one of her best recent albums.
Coming Forth by Day is a tribute album to Billie Holiday, who would have been 100 years old in 2015. The release re-interprets 11 Holiday classics, but unlike a typical jazz tribute. Fans of Cassandra Wilson know that nothing in her catalog of over 20 albums is typical. The spirit of adventure and innovation pervades throughout Coming Forth by Day like a new disruptive technology.
Start with producer Nick Launay best known for his work with Nick Cave and Arcade Fire and mix in a team of musicians from both the jazz and rock world and the result is one of this year’s most interesting (if not under appreciated) super group mash ups.
The cross genre mix of musicians produces tonal interpretations of Holiday’s songs that are both in spirit of the original, yet adds a new dimension of spookiness and foreboding. “Strange Fruit” with rock guitar somehow sounds totally appropriate behind Wilson’s cool vocals and a relaxed string arrangement.
For all its contrasting styles, it’s the lush string arrangements by Van Dyke Parks that hold the songs together. At times they can be reminiscent of Lambchop as on “You Go To My Head”. Like the music of Lambchop, Wilson has created a kind of Americana that’s steeped in history but remains fresh and contemporary.
That approach gives Coming Forth by Day levels of complexity that can reveal things that you might have missed before in a casual listen. That’s in part due to the cast of top notch musicians like Marlyn Casey on bass and Thomas Wilder on drums who add considerably to the depth of this album.
It was inevitable that someone like Wilson who has channeled aspects of Billie Holiday throughout her career would make this type of tribute album. Fortunately for me I did not sit on it for too long before discovering it many charms.