On the surface, the elements of thunderbird, the inimitable vocalist Cassandra Wilson’s seventh album for Blue Note, may seem familiar to those listeners who have embraced her past albums going back to 1993’s Blue Light ‘Til Dawn and the Grammy Award-winning New Moon Daughter. Pop songs, classic blues, folk ballads and jazz sensibilities all find common ground with Cassandra’s honeyed vocals wrapped around them. But immediately upon first listen to thunderbird, an entirely new dimension makes itself known. Primal, warmly intimate and extremely detailed in its nuances, thunderbird is an aural delight to behold.
A postmodern expression of roots music produced by the acclaimed T Bone Burnett (their first collaboration), thunderbird does possess a very different sound: dense, humid, sensual, almost tactile. A sound characterized by live-on-the-floor performances accented by studio tech¬nology but still retaining their essential organic qualities. An acoustic bass line may play subtly throughout the track, then move into the foreground with sudden and dramatic impact. A lone slide guitar, intertwined with Cassandra’s voice, can conjure the weight and density of a full band.
Credit Cassandra with once again breaking free of familiar formulae and easy routes. Credit T Bone with thunderbird’s atmospheric magic and for assembling an exceptional supporting cast in sessions that took place between November 2004 through June 2005 at various studios in L.A. (Capitol, The Village Recorder, The Green Room, and T Bone’s own Electro Magnetic) and New York (Dangerous Music).
“You know, most modern recording studios are pretty much the same,” Cassandra notes. “That is, unless you doctor them. I think great producers know how to do that, and T Bone Burnett is certainly in that group of great producers. He makes certain modifications that I can’t really go into detail about, because I think they’re secret. There are personal techniques that he uses in order to cater the studio, to get the sounds he wants to get.”
(Not for nothing was Burnett named Non-Classical Producer of the Year in the 44th Annual Grammy Awards. That 2002 ceremony celebrated his work on the multi-platinum soundtrack album O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its sequel Down From the Mountain as well as on the album Fan Dance by singer/songwriter Sam Phillips. T Bone has worked with everyone from Elvis Costello to Ralph Stanley, and produced and/or composed music for such films as The Big Lebowski, Cold Mountain, and most recently the much-heralded Johnny Cash biopic, Walk The Line.)
As to thunderbird’s supporting cast: Keefus Ciancia (piano, keyboards, programming) has worked with Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Fishbone, Macy Gray, Allison Krauss, and Elvis Costello. Electric bassist Mike Elizondo has become a marquee name on the on the charts through his songwriting and production for 50 Cent (“In Da Club”), Eminem (“Just Lose It,”), Eve (“Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” featuring Gwen Stefani), and Fiona Apple (Extraordinary Machine). Canadian slide guitarist Colin Linden first worked with T Bone in 2000, when he contributed a version of Skip James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” to O Brother Where Art Thou?.
Cassandra’s thunderbird crew also includes two members of her most recent touring band, Reginald Veal on acoustic and electric bass and Gregoire Maret on harmonica. Other participants also include guitarists Keb’ Mo’ and Marc Ribot; drummers Jay Bellerose, Jim Keltner and Bill Maxwell; and engineer extraordinaire Mike Piersante. Cassandra herself plays acoustic guitar on the tracks “Closer To You” and “Tarot.”
As to the album’s title: the legend of the thunderbird is an ancient myth that survives today in some Native American cultures. In the eyes of the ancients, it was a divine and magical animal sent by the gods to protect them from the powers of evil. The thunderbird brought calm and growth to the region. For Cassandra, the spiritual and magical aspects to this creature perfectly described the environment from which these songs grew.