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Colourless effort from jazz star

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Winner of two jazz vocal Grammys, among many other awards, and rated America’s best singer by Time magazine in 2001, Cassandra Wilson surprised by offering an often indifferent performance at the Dunstan Playhouse in a set that lasted barely over an hour.

In high moments, her singing hinted at the skills evident on her recordings, but this was a fairly colourless effort on the whole and one in which she was often overshadowed by the band.

The backing group of five musical luminaries opened with an instrumental composed by harmonica player Gregoire Maret, before Wilson emerged to sing “Children of the Night”, from her first Blue Note album in 1993. She failed to assert herself against a busy backing, where Charlie Burnham’s mandolin was also too incisive and attacking for the mood of the song. “No More Blues”, from her most recent Another Country album, was better fare, showing the singer and band in a more complementary relationship. The languid samba rhythm of that album’s title track followed and looked like restoring faith.

Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” was given an idiosyncratic arrangement which showcased Wilson’s ability to command attention even when hardly pushing herself. It was slow and measured, and allowed her room to use a deeper register against a lighter backing. There was a presumably deliberate contrast between her voice on the one hand, controlled and suggesting restrained power, and a peaky and emotional harmonica solo on the other, yet the two did not match well.

A long Cuban tune let the band range through a series of solos which mainly featured the dynamic percussionist Mino Cinelu and, unfortunately, some insistent metallic ringing from the mandolin. Wilson then offered a quirky version of Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” with jumbled verses that lost the enchantment of the original.

Boyce and Hart’s “Last Train to Clarksville” received an unusual but pleasantly slow and anxious treatment in which the band showed some punch, especially Lonnie Plaxico, producing fat notes from his electric upright bass, and Brandon Ross on guitar. The foregrounding of the lyrics worked well and showcased Wilson’s voice, both in a smoky relaxed mode and a more uptempo fashion. She stretched herself more at the end of this final tune than at any other time.

No one doubts the woman can sing, and a languorous delivery is fine when it works, especially with such honeyed tones as Wilson’s contralto can conjure, but this was a lacklustre performance in many respects. Maybe appearing sleepy and disinterested is cool, but the audience deserved better.

Cassandra Wilson performs again at the Dunstan Playhouse tonight (June 13).  

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