REVIEW: Cassandra Wilson: Coming Forth by Day + Lionel Loueke at the Royal Featival Hall (2015 EFG LJF)

Cassandra Wilson. Photo credit: Scott Penner / Creative Commons

Cassandra Wilson: Coming Forth by Day + Lionel Loueke
(Royal Festival Hall. Sun. 15th Nov. (2015 EFG LJF) Review by Alison Bentley)

Would she or wouldn’t she? After a sublime but all too short solo set from guitarist/singer Lionel Loueke, the interval grew longer and longer. The promoters announced that they weren’t sure if Cassandra Wilson would come on stage at all- refunds were offered. Many audience members had to leave, but those able to stay were rewarded with a set of intense brilliance from Wilson and her band.

The gig was part of Wilson’s European tour, playing music from her new Coming Forth by Day album, her tribute to the great Lady Day, Billie Holiday. The band started with an instrumental- The Man I Love, led by excellent pianist and Wilson’s long term collaborator Jon Cowherd (last heard at Pizza Express with Brian Blade and Jon Pattitucci.)The band seemed full of pent up energy after the delay. Wilson appeared, with her customary electric stage presence, and sang Don’t Explain. That distinctive voice, recognisable after just a couple of notes. Her 1995 recording of this with Courtney Pine had always seemed unsurpassable, but this bluesy 12/8 treatment brought a new strength to the song. Wilson never sounded like a victim, changing the words: ‘I’m glad you’re back’ became ‘I’m glad you’re not back’. In this version, right and wrong did matter, she sang. She did explain, in fact- she’d been ill in her hotel room.

A gently funky What a Little Moonlight Can Do had flute riffs from Robby Marshall and Charlie Burnham’s violin sounding like a rock guitar with wah wah pedal. Wilson had a way of sometimes seeming almost detached from her voice, as if it had a life of its own- as an instrument along with the band- that beautiful burnished, soft tone. But sometimes she’d raise the volume and you’d hear some steely glittering sounds in the voice that took it to another dimension. Crazy He Calls Me had the versatile Marshall riffing on bass clarinet with the violin, the voice deep and crackling, then high and breathy. She talked about Billie Holiday’s respect for her band, and how Holiday ‘…gives a lot of space to her musicians. Some of her recordings have two choruses of soloing and vocals in the middle…so don’t go home and complain about it- just enjoy it,’ she cajoled.

You Go to My Head was often performed by the late Betty Carter, and there was something of Carter’s sound in the sliding deep tones of Wilson’s voice, full of personality. Davide Direnzo’s excellent drumming, with its ringing cymbal sounds, was a little over-amplified here, drowning the sax solo. But there was lots of space for Marshall to shine on All of Me, with his warm Joe Henderson-like sound. Unusually in a minor key and slow Latin groove, the song brought out some emotive, romantic soloing from Cowherd. Bass clarinet and violin drawled atmospherically behind the voice. There was a sudden, affecting moment of vulnerability as Wilson sang: ‘You took the best- take all the rest.’ Lonnie Plaxico opened Good Morning Heartache with enthralling solo on upright electric bass- percussive, almost strumming the strings. Wilson sang intimately as if confiding in the audience, then clapping with pleasure as pizzicato violin, clarinet and piano improvised freely.

How to follow that? With Run the Voodoo Down, from Wilson’s Travellin’ Miles album- rootsy, raunchy, the voice uninhibited and unfettered, scatting blues notes with the violin, and singing her lyrics to Miles Davis’ tune: ‘Don't care for idle conversation/I'm not your girl about town/But when it comes to make music/I run the voodoo down.’ Wilson certainly cast a spell.

Both Lionel Loueke’s and Wilson’s music were steeped in jazz and blues tradition. In his opening set, Loueke also drew on percussive rhythms, which he studied as a child in Benin. You could hear the rhythms of the marimba and kora in his guitar playing, as well as the influence of King Sunny Ade- and John Lee Hooker. Sometimes the semi-hollow guitar sounded like talking drums, or had soukous-like cross rhythms. He didn’t talk about his songs, but sang and played almost continuously (with some digital enhancement.) He scatted along with the guitar lines in gentle falsetto and deep bass, with elements of what sounded like a Miriam Makeba ‘click’ solo. What made the music strikingly new was the jazz harmonies- modal and discordant, or sweet and swinging- a beguiling mixture played and sung with such virtuosity.

LINK: Alison Bentley's preview of Cowherd/ Blade / Patitucci from 2012
Review - Cassandra Wilson at Ronnie Scott's in 2013


  1. Today she claimed in Facebook that she was not ill at all. It was actually a contract dispute and the promoter did not pay her. What really happened?

    1. Good question. Nothing to look at here, according to LondonJazzNews. EveningStandard has a different tale.

    2. According to her post, she actually said: "the events of the day were sickening."

  2. On Sunday I attended the Cassandra Wilson concert and was unfortunate to witness a performer who showed utter contempt for her audience and performed a cursory 60 minutes of which she was on stage for a fraction of that time. My gratitude goes to her band who were brilliant and did their magnificent best to cover for diva's ego.

  3. I was unfortunate to be at the concert and witnessed a diva's utter contempt for her audience. On stage for a fraction of the 60 minutes. Thank goodness for the band who did magnificently to make up for her.

  4. Well, we were there. This is the first – only – proper review I’ve found of the show, and we still don’t know what happened. According to CW, she was ‘throwing up in the hotel’; the Serious announcers had said she was refusing to leave her hotel room, and the band had gone to try to persuade her. Her Twitter comments earlier had alluded to difficult travel due to border crossings (and next day her Facebook page had very harsh words about the promoters).
    It was bound to be a tense performance after that, and when she began some kind of dialogue with someone in the front row, it was probably right that others in the audience shouted “just sing!”. She did, and mostly pretty well too in spite of her first crackly mike. She is an astounding musician. But the credit must surely go to the band, who weren’t always well-served by the sound system. Lonnie Plaxico always reliable – like Jon Cowherd, and the interplay between Robbie Marshall and Charlie Burnham was a joy.
    The setlist was suppose to start with ‘The Way You Look Tonight’, but she came on first for the second number: ‘Don't Explain’. Which was a good tactic, but sadly not well built-on. However, when she went into ‘Crazy’, and ‘All of me’, they did feel spot-on, and brilliantly delivered. Notably, she did not sing ‘Billie’s Blues’.
    We last saw her in Paris last year, when Brandon Ross had major problems with the equipment, and so that too felt odd.
    But this was a headline event, at a major venue for a major jazz festival. I don’t think it was ‘utter contempt’, but it did feel disrespectful. ‘Intense brilliance’? Intense, certainly, for the wrong reasons, and with patches of brilliance amid the dark.
    – ‘You may be right, you may be wrong /maybe just sing the song, /’cos when the Lord gets ready, you gotta move…’

  5. I think it's worth reading her Facebook post - and ensuing responses to commenters - about why she initially refused to perform: