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    EARS NEW YORK

    Written by Jeff Levenson

    CASSANDRA WILSON
    Another Country
    Ojah/eOne Music

    Cassandra Wilson's latest release is a shotgun marriage between the buoyant currents of Mediterranean-inspired tropicalia and the musky red soil of the American south. It is a guitar-driven detour that finds Wilson making music for a label other than Blue Note. After a 20-year run spanning eight records (including "Blue Light 'Til Dawn," which came to be regarded among jazz vocalists as a game-changer in both style and repertoire), she has changed her home address.

    Another Country finds her stepping out in full composer mode, penning nine of the album's 10 songs, relying on a stark simplicity that while short on melodic invention relies on her signature sultry vocals. Her lone cover is "O Solo Mio," inspired no doubt by the recording's production location - Florence, Italy - and by producer Fabrizio Sotti.

     

    Perhaps most distinctive about Another Country is its unfolding spirit - a moody wash, both languid and measured, with explicit earthiness conveyed by the song's arrangements. Alas, this reveals the record’s weakness; the tunes are not strong enough to resonate or sustain beyond the treatments dressing them. A few exceptions, however, redeem the album: "Red Guitar," the album's opening track, which bears a resemblance to the folk standard "Wayfaring Stranger"; "Olomuroro," a deconstructed nursery rhyme aided by the Nocca Chamber Choir from New Orleans; and a bonus track, "O Solo Mio Funk,” which does for that aria what the album's earlier straightjacket version could not do - give it life as an off-the-cuff romp worth singing.

    Wilson, who has always displayed fierce creative independence, does so again. That does not,  however, translate to a winning record. Although Another Country is a bold strike with a new team, there are too few joys to be heard here. You need to turn the soil and hope to find them.

    MELODY GARDOT
    The Absence
    Verve

    Whereas Wilson's record traffics in the predictable pose of her interpretive skills (even clothed in Italian finery), Melody Gardot's The Absence, her third studio effort, is a magic carpet ride traversing the lands of Spain, France, Portugal, Africa and Brazil. Each provides a musical touchstone, utilized and integrated so convincingly, that the record proves a seamless atlas of surprising juxtapositions. No one style trumps, and those that come together are wondrous pairings, as in "Amalie," a tune evocative of Paul Simon's best interior observations, yet rendered by way of Cameroon.

    Produced by Brazilian guitarist Heitor Pereira, The Absence feels supple and warm. His use, for instance, of strings, harmonica and percussion weave in around Gardot, providing a cocoon of sound contextualizing her silken vocals. She is a confident singer whose ease belies a compelling conviction. She treats nonchalance as a story-telling device. In that regard, Lester Young comes to mind.

    But not to be fooled - she is a spellbinding dramatist who reflects on life's yearnings with a knowing air.  "So We Meet Again My Heartache" is a standout, in that regard. As is, the intimate duet she sings with Pereira on "Se Voce Me Ama."

    Mysterious as she may be in her public pronouncements - her story's center is a disabling bicycle accident at the age of 19 - her music reveals a chanteuse abiding by her gypsy nature, transforming experience into art. She has been to some faraway places, heartlands all. The Absence is her travelogue.

    Jeff Levenson is a label executive, writer-producer, and jazz journalist. His affiliations include posts at Half Note, Sony, Warner Bros, Downbeat and Billboard. He currently produces the annual Thelonious Monk Instrumental Competition, and has authored and/or produced events for the NEA, the US State Department, the White House, the New School for Social Research and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. His credits include collaborations with Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Bela Fleck, Arturo Sandoval, and McCoy Tyner. He has produced and/or supervised six Grammy albums - 2 winners, 4 nominees. He currently chairs the National Jazz Committee for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, serves as Board Governor for its New York Chapter, and digs the company of jazz musicians.



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