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thhunderbird by Cassandra Wilson

I got turned on to Cassandra Wilson in 1996 with her second Blue Note disc New Moon Daughter. Everything about it thrilled me: the mix of folk, country, blues, pop, jazz and some fine originals; the instrumentation, which, departing from the piano-trio-plus-vocals staple, used lots of guitars, lots of percussion and just enough studio production and, of course, Wilson, whose shadowy voice exuded strength, vulnerability, sex and anger, sometimes all in the same song. It worked for her, too because she repeated the recipe in subsequent albums until it began to feel formulaic.

On April 4th however, she released thunderbird, her sixth Blue Note album and her first release since 2003’s Glamoured. While the set is quintessential Cassandra, Jakob Dylan segues into Blind Lemon Jefferson leading to a solid Wilson original, there’s clearly a new, compelling sound here that adds extra life to this outing. Not to sell Wilson short, she’s in excellent form here, as expressive and nuanced as ever and contributing four of the ten songs. The four, in fact, have been playing in my head the past few weeks. I attribute the new vigor to producer Joseph Henry Burnett. You know, T-Bone Burnett, the magician responsible for the multi-platinum O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, among other recent raving successes.

Who knows exactly what Burnett did on thunderbird. You probably had to be in the studio to know for sure. In Blue Note press material, Wilson alludes to certain "secret" studio modifications, but I imagine him snapping his fingers and adding the little flourishes: the growling synth strings at the end of "Strike a Match," the sample of the Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indian tribe that serves as the rhythmic foundation of "Go to Mexico," the epic sweep of "Easy Rider," which works itself into a blazing Texas fury only to fade away into the dust.

In addition, some of the old and new musicians backing up Wilson deserve credit, too. Guitarist Marc Ribot stands out on every track he appears on. Bassist Mike Elizondo lays down great grooves. Three drummers share rhythm duties, Jim Keltner, Jay Bellerose and Bill Maxwell, and keyboardist/programmer Keefus Ciancia is given a lot of work from beginning to end. In fact, he’s listed as co-producer.

Whatever the secret of thunderbird is, it’s a winner. Some reviewers say this could be Wilson’s breakthrough disc, the one that attracts attention from outside of jazz circles. I can see that. Actually, I wouldn’t even call thunderbird a jazz album, though I’m not sure what I would call it except for intoxicating, arresting, eminently danceable and delightful.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Cassandra Wilson
  • CD Title: thhunderbird
  • Genre: Jazz Vocals
  • Year Released: 2006
  • Record Label: Blue Note
  • Tracks: Go to Mexico, Closer to You, Easy Rider, It Would Be So Easy, Red River Valley, Poet, I Want to Be Loved, Lost, Strike a Match, Tarot
  • Musicians: Cassandra Wilson (vocals), T Bone Burnett (guitar, vocals), Colin Linden (guitar, mandolin), Keb Mo (guitar, vocals), Marc Ribot (guitar), Keith
  • Rating: Four Stars
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