Deep Dive: Cassandra Wilson’s “Silver Pony”

Cassandra Wilson could’ve been the “next great” jazz singer, but she chose a vastly more interesting path. By bringing the sounds of blues, R&B, and more into her fold, Wilson tossed a well-deserved middle finger to the gatekeepers who expect jazz musicians to stay in the Real Book and blues musicians to stay in Mississippi. While extending the middle to the music industry, she used her pointer to beckon in sounds from every corner of Black music and worked them into a catalog of stunning, eclectic records.

For Silver Pony, her 2010 effort that pulls from studio and live recordings, Wilson seemed to realize that she had a band that could absolutely cook up the blend of styles she wanted. Long before he was on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Jon Batiste was working the piano with Cassandra Wilson, alongside heavies like Herlin Riley, Reginald Veal, Marvin Sewell, and Lekan Babalola. Across the release, the band flexes their authentic connections to the many different styles that Cassandra Wilson lined up for the songs. There’s something particularly inspiring about hearing the band’s brisk swing on “Lover Come Back to Me” dovetail into a blues-rock rendition of “St. James Infirmary.”

Wilson’s smoky, emotive voice provides the connective tissue needed to make an album half recorded on the road in Europe and half recorded at a studio in New Orleans hang together. Even on the instrumental “A Night in Seville,” I can hear Wilson’s presence in the sound, in the room, and with the audience.

Throughout the album, we are blessed by the wider musical family that Wilson pulls from. Ravi Coltrane offers up a stunning sax solo on the relentlessly mesmerizing 3/4 groove “Beneath the Silver Moon.” John Legend pours all the best of his John Legend-ness to album closer, “Watch the Sunrise.”

The album is titled Silver Pony because Cassandra Wilson said “yes” to a traveling pony and camera man in her childhood who stopped by the Wilson home in Mississippi and offered the opportunity for the kids to hop on a pony and have their pictures taken. Her older brother demurred, but Cassandra hopped right on there and took a portrait for the ages. It’s a fitting allegory for a woman who has showed courage, curiosity, and an open mind into parts of the music world known to be hostile to all those qualities. I’m glad Ms. Wilson hopped on the pony at age four, and I’m glad she’s never hopped on the bandwagon in her career.

I hope you’ll tune in to today’s Afternoon Cruise we set sail at 3 PM! – Sean McPherson

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