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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
The Jazz Café, Camden Town, London, September 25th 2007
50 Who is it, Serge, who decides how much things are worth? Is there some external arbiter of value who can, willy nilly, put a price on any given item or commodity? Or is it simply, and crudely, determined by some estimate of “what the market will bear”, or cruder still, “whatever someone’s prepared to pay”?
And if it is this latter, basely commercial, calculation, then how do you know how deep “someone’s” purse is? Or could it be that price isn’t determined by value at all, and rather that value is determined by price? Well, as ever I’m afraid, too many questions and not enough answers. Well, not quite. Because whoever determined (and for that matter, however) the entry price for Cassandra Wilson’s four nights at Camden Town’s Jazz Café, they clearly got it badly wrong. Knowing the extent of our Whiskyfun budget means that there was no baulking at a £50 per head ticket for me – here’s someone I’ve wanted to see for a very long time, and the chance of a performance in such an intimate atmosphere (she normally hangs out at places like the Southbank Centre – great sound but sadly lacking in atmosphere) was too much to resist.
Sadly it looked like only forty or fifty people thought the same – upstairs is half empty and downstairs the floor is dotted by a sparse collection of woodentops, largely of the male variety. Quite how she fared on her other three nights I know not, but on a suddenly autumnal Tuesday evening this was a sorry and shameful turnout for such an accomplished artiste. Maybe (because I’m told that in the two weeks since I’ve been away the British economy has crumbled, trust in our financial institutions has been undermined, and consumer confidence is at an all time low) people are simply choosing to stay at home counting their bawbees by candlelight. Woodentops
And you might have thought that many a performer might have chosen to turn in a less than optimal performance for such a tawdry crowd. But I’m glad to say this was not the case, and I observe that even the woodentops did their best to encourage both Ms Wilson and her highly gifted band, led by guitarist Marvin Sewell, who has played with her for over ten years, and uber laid-back pianist Jason Moran. At the heart of Ms Wilson’s performance is of course her deeply expressive voice with its very broad range of notes – it has to be said that when she moves into a really low register the sound system has difficulty in keeping track with her. But what is most compelling is the languid blues groove that her bands have for many years provided as the backdrop to her singing. It’s a sound that has been progressively developed since her 1993 album Blue Light ‘Til Dawn – when Brandon Ross provided the blues guitar sound that has also become a signature of her work – something that Sewell has picked up and developed in his own style. Ms Wilson also relies heavily (both on disc and in live performance) on other people’s compositions – so tonight we get songs as diverse as Robert Johnson’s ‘Hellhound on my trail’, Elmore Jame’s ‘Dust my broom’, Duke Ellington’s ‘Caravan’ and U2’s ‘Love is blindness’ – all of which are given the very distinctive Wilson treatment, so it’s always a bit of a guessing game during the introductions to know what’s coming next.
Cassandra Wilson
I observe that reviewers have in the past chided her for this over-reliance on the work of others, as her own writing skills are by no means poor. However I struggled to spot an original composition in the set which began with ‘St James’ Infirmary’ and ended with Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ‘Waters of March’. This latter song was from Belly of the Sun, the fourth of a series of epic albums that began with Blue Light, since when critics have also found her overall recorded works less satisfactory, somewhat mainstream, and perhaps altogether too predictable, including the most recent, 2006’s Thunderbird. That may be – but tonight’s performance, even in the absence of a decent audience is very, very good. In addition to her mesmerising voice, the multi-layered rhythmical feel - result of the work of New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley (who even manages to use the underside of the overhead walkway as an additional instrument) and percussionist Lekan Babalola - takes songs like ‘Dust my broom’ into deeply uncharted and intriguing territory. And of course it plays strongly to the African heritage of Ms Wilson’s birthplace of Mississippi and many of the composers she chooses to feature.
Value for money? Well, who can really tell? But certainly neither I nor the Photographer felt undersold. And if £50 is what it costs to go and see Ms Wilson and a band of such quality (did I remember to mention the wonderfully sensitive string bass player Reginald Veal?) then I for one would certainly go again. - Nick Morgan (concert photograph by Kate)
Kate's Cassandra Wilson photo album

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