Album Review: Silver Pony by Cassandra Wilson

Grammy Award-winning jazz/pop singer Cassandra Wilson will release her latest album, Silver Pony, through EMI’s Blue Note Records on November 9. The album features live recordings from a European tour and studio recordings laid down at New Orleans’ Piety Street Studios. Tracks include original tunes written by Cassandra and her band as well as jazz/pop classics. Wilson derived the album’s title from a life-changing childhood experience:

“A man came around my neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi, with a pony and camera,” she recalls. “You could pay to get your picture taken.” Her brothers declined, but Cassandra was eager. Her mother hesitated-“there were certain things young ladies just didn’t do,” Wilson adds. But Cassandra seized the moment, got the picture. “I’m so happy she let me ride the pony,” she says now. “I was fearless, and I guess she wanted to encourage that in me.”  That priceless photo is now featured on the cover of “Silver Pony,” and such fearlessness now fuels Wilson’s work.

Silver Pony was produced by Cassandra Wilson and John Fischbach, owner of Piety Street Recording Studios. The band features Cassandra on vocals and synthesizer, Marvin Sewell (electric guitar), Jonathan Batiste (piano), Reginald Veal (electric bass), Herlin Riley (drums), and Lekan Babalola (percussion). Ravi Coltrane adds saxophone on “Silver Moon” and “Watch The Sunrise” features both vocals and piano by John Legend.

Wilson’s musical past includes performances with a funk band in Mississippi, a blues band in Arkansas, and jazz groups in New Orleans and New York City. Wilson and her band seamlessly integrate these genres on Silver Pony. Each track showcases Wilson’s rich, caramel voice and the band’s intricate instrumental jams. One of the joys of the album is the easy give-and-take between the bandmembers. It’s obvious that they love playing together and feed off of each other’s energy, especially during the improv in the live tracks.

The jazzy “Lover Come Back to Me” starts out with Riley’s brushed snare drum imitating the sound of a train chugging down the tracks. Wilson’s voice melts over frenetic guitar and piano riffs. Batiste plays a scampering piano solo, followed by a heated percussion exchange between Riley and Babaloa. Wilson later engages in wordless call and response vocal imitation with the piano and guitar. The track rattles to a close as Riley’s snare drum “train” slows down and comes to a halt.

The next two tracks reflect Wilson’s blues/funk roots. “St. James Infirmary” starts out with Sewell’s bending guitar riff. The mid section of the song features a guitar solo which explores and toys with various jazz scales. During the last three minutes of the song, Wilson’s performs vocal improv over a funky groove. The original instrumental jam, “A Night in Seville”, gives Wilson the opportunity to display her synthesizer chops.

The funk vibe mellows into another original tune, “Silver Moon”. The nocturnal ballad includes sensual lyrics:

Come drink with me/beneath a silver moon.

A taste of what kiss from God will light a fire in your eyes tonight.

Ravi Coltrane’s saxophone solo winds around an undulating drum and piano tapestry and escapes into an atonal fantasy near the end of the song.

“If It’s Magic” is a welcome, calm moment on the album as the only song without percussion. Wilson’s voice purrs over a dreamy guitar/piano accompaniment.

This version of “A Day in the Life of a Fool” juxtaposes a bossa nova feel with a tint of the blues. The track starts out with a bongo drum solo eventually joined by bass and piano accompaniment. Sewell’s expressive guitar work shines through his expert use of the slide and volume pedal.

A complete track listing is as follows:

  1. Lover Come Back To Me 6:51 (Hammerstein/Romberg)
  2. St. James Infirmary 7:12 (Traditional)
  3. A Night in Seville 3:00 (Wilson/Sewell/Veal/Riley/Batiste/Babalola)
  4. Silver Moon 6:41 (Wilson/Sewell/Veal/Riley/Batiste/Babalola)
  5. Pony Blues 9:32 (Patton)
  6. If It’s Magic 4:34 (Wonder)
  7. Forty Days and Forty Nights 4:58 (Roth)
  8. Silver Pony 0:36 (Wilson/Sewell/Veal/Riley/Batiste/Babalola)
  9. A Day in the Life of a Fool 7:35 (Bonfa/Sigman)
  10. Blackbird 6:43 (Lennon/McCartney)
  11. Sunrise 3:32 (Laird/Jones/Stephens)
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