After eight albums, Cassandra Wilson was still classified as a young jazz singer with promise.
Then came her ninth release, "Blue Light 'Til Dawn." Now she's the jazz singer of today. What's more, a lot of people with no particular interest in jazz are turning into Wilson fans.
"Yes, I'm surprised," the New York-based Ms. Wilson says of her burgeoning popularity. "Pleasantly surprised. The response people have to the album has been amazing. I'm still trying to figure it out."
She laughs. "But I guess it's not something I need to figure out. Whatever it is, it's cool."
Success is cool and Ms. Wilson is hot, as Rolling Stone declared in a two-page spread devoted to her in its recent "Hot" issue. And she sings at 8 tonight at the Spear Center as part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts. (See schedule for details.)
Ms. Wilson was nominated for a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal. She sang "Crazy Love" on the Van Morrison tribute album, "No Prima Donna," at the invitation of the notoriously prickly Morrison himself. She sang the title track on "When Doves Cry," Bob Belden's jazzy Prince tribute album. She appeared on-screen in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie "Junior" and is heard off-screen in "Miami Rhapsody."
Meanwhile, 1993's "Blue Light 'Til Dawn" keeps selling. It's now passed the 250,000 mark worldwide, a monster figure for a jazz act. Ms. Wilson has gone from club gigs to headlining London's Royal Albert Hall.
The doe-eyed and dreadlocked Ms. Wilson's sudden rise is not hard to figure. For years she operated beyond the mainstream as part of the M-Base movement, a loosely knit group of experimental jazz players led by saxophonist Steve Coleman. Her albums tended toward funk, hip-hop and science fiction-fueled electric romps, with the notable exception of 1988's "Blue Skies," a conventional set of Tin Pan Alley standards.
With "Blue Light 'Til Dawn," Ms. Wilson tried something completely different and won the hearts, minds and ears of non-jazz fans in the process. She ventured out of jazz territory into the world of rock and pop to reinterpret songs by Joni Mitchell ("Black Crow"), Van Morrison ("Tupelo Honey"), Ann Peebles ("I Can't Stand the Rain") and the Stylistics ("Children of the Night"), as well as delta blues by Robert Johnson ("Come on In My Kitchen," "Hellhound on My Trail").
"I originally came to Craig Street, my producer, with the idea of doing an album of Motown standards," Ms. Wilson says. "He said, 'Well, if Motown is part of your musical history, what else is?' I started telling him about Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and he said, 'Why can't you do their music as well?' He had a point. It's important to be true to yourself."
Ms. Wilson, who is in her late 30s, didn't just stick with the pop songs she played on her stereo in high school. Mr. Street urged her to reconnect with her Mississippi roots by trying Robert Johnson's classic country blues.
"I didn't really listen to delta blues as a child," the Jackson, Miss., native admits. "The music I mostly heard as a child was jazz. But it's impossible to grow up in Mississippi and not be exposed to the blues. It's in the air.
"But, really, I don't think I heard Robert Johnson's music until I moved to Little Rock, Ark. I played in this blues and R&B; band and the harmonica player used to play a lot of his music."
Ms. Wilson's take on Johnson's blues is strikingly original, as are her covers of Ms. Mitchell and Mr. Morrison. Her smoky, snaky jazz singer's voice moves against a shockingly stark background that mixes acoustic and pedal steel guitars, violin, clarinet and accordion. It's not jazz. It's certainly not rock.
So what is it?
"I don't think it's definable or categorizable," Ms. Wilson says. "I polled the people at my record label [Capitol-owned Blue Note] and some called it jazz. Some said it's not jazz, but it has jazz in it. It's all fine with me. Jazz is just a word. It doesn't fully describe or explain the music. That's all I can say, except that in my mind, it's possible to be a jazz singer and have popular appeal."
But for an artist with serious jazz credentials such as Ms. Wilson, VTC that popular appeal can be taken as a sign you've sold out and gone mainstream. "There was a little fear in me," she says, "I have to be honest. But there's another part of me that says, 'Why not?' So far, no one's said anything bad to my face." Ms. Wilson chuckles. "I have no idea what people are saying behind my back."
Wilson may have outgrown her reputation as an erratic experimenter, but her passion for musical exploration is intact. "For me, it's a question of 'Where's the challenge?,' " she says. "I want to meet the challenge. It's really important for the growth of an artist.
"You never know what might happen. All the possibilities out there, that's what excites me."
Bits of "Blue"
To hear excerpts from Cassandra Wilson's album "Blue Light 'Til Dawn," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6117 after you hear the greeting.