It’s hard to argue with anyone who covers the four M’s in one set. In this case: Bob Marley, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and the Monkees.
The interpreter was the innovative jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson at the Dakota Jazz Club on Monday. She is celebrating the 20th anniversary of her breakthrough “Blue Light Til Dawn,” on which she added blues, pop and R&B songs to the Great American Songbook.
Though the gig was billed in some places as Wilson playing “Blue Light” in its entirety, she and her excellent band did a few selections from the album plus some other material. No complaints. It was an inspiring performance.
Wilson’s husky, warm voice caressed the cold lyrics of “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” the opener of the 75-minute set as well as of “Blue Light.” She then moved into the second number on “Blue Light” – Robert Johnson’s blues classic “Come On in My Kitchen.” Her elastic voice got sassy, sexy and seductive, and the band turned this tune inside out, spiking it with some drunken blues guitar.
The ensuing “Tupelo Honey,” the Morrison song heard on “Blue Light,” was one of the highlights of the first set. Wilson switched the gender of the lyrics, of course, and gave the 1970s tune a hazy, dreamy feel thanks to phrasing that seemed so measured it sounded lazy, though she managed to include a Van-like hiccup. Gregoire Maret’s harmonica added just the right sweetening for this Southern love song.
Wilson afforded all five of her sidemen a chance to solo, especially guitarists Brandon Ross and Kevin Breit, and drummer John Davis, who had the stage to himself for an intriguing seven-minute journey. Maret’s flute-like harmonica passage suggested a bird flying during “Black Crow,” the Joni song heard on “Blue Dawn.”
The two other M songs came from other Wilson projects. Her voice-and-acoustic guitar rendition of Marley’s “Redemption Song” was mesmerizingly understated until Ross strummed his guitar loudly in mid-song as if to make an exclamation point that wasn’t needed.
The set ended with the Monkees’ “Last Train To Clarksville” which Wilson, now 58 and old enough to have witnessed the Monkees firsthand, recorded in 1996. Although harmonica fueled the proceedings, this wasn’t a chugga-chugga train song. Rather, this fast train to rumblesville rambled along like a spaced out blues.
Wilson and her band will perform again at 7 and 9 p.m. Tuesday at the Dakota Jazz Club.