Three years ago, the paths of jazz/blues vocalist Cassandra Wilson and producer/musician/soundtrack composer T Bone Burnett intersected for a single song for the soundtrack of the NBC television drama Crossing Jordan — a haunting version of the Jimi Hendrix ballad “Wind Cries Mary.” They were, not surprisingly, already aware of each other's work: Burnett had been deeply affected by Wilson's version of Billie Holiday's classic “Strange Fruit,” and the singer knew that Burnett had an encyclopedic knowledge of blues and American popular music. The two hit it off, and yet it would be another two years before they would collaborate on Wilson's latest album, Thunderbird.
Wilson's singing career has been both varied and provocative. She's noted for her nuanced vocal style, her understated power and her always interesting choice of material, which has spanned many genres during the course of several albums. In the early 1980s, upon moving to New York from Mississippi, she was a member of saxophonist Steve Coleman's M-Base Collective and fought for breathing space in that dense, jazz/funk/avant garde consortium. Her first solo recording came out in 1985 and carried on some of M-Base's most adventurous traits. Yet she also paid dues going the traditional route of most jazz singers — interpreting standards. She didn't really come into her own musical identity until she signed on with the Blue Note label and recorded the highly successful Blue Light Til Dawn in 1993 with producer Craig Street. It featured Wilson in a pre-Norah Jones — style, acoustic-driven setting, converting songs by Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ann Peebles, blues icon Robert Johnson and others into her own swampy and sensual creations. New Moon Daughter, her next CD, was also done with Street and followed a similar formula, but with even more pop diversity; it, too, was a success with the public and critics. More recently, Wilson's albums have been slightly less accessible: Traveling Miles was a tribute (in part) to the legendary Miles Davis (and very popular internationally); Belly of the Sun offered an organic mixture of blues classics and pop hits; and then there was Glamoured, the first project to truly highlight Wilson's originals (about half), recorded in Mississippi and co-produced with guitarist Fabrizio Sotti.
For the new Thunderbird album, the soft-spoken singer had Burnett at the top of her wish list for producers and used their collaboration as an excuse to move in yet another direction. For one thing, Wilson decided not to use her regular band, except for the phenomenal bassist Reginald Veal and the equally astounding harmonica player Gregoire Maret. Otherwise, she gave herself over to Burnett's team of musicians and engineers and decided to record in the L.A. area for the most part. Principal musicians included drummers Jim Keltner, Bill Maxwell and Jay Bellerose; guitarists Colin Linden and Marc Ribot; and bassist/programmers Mike Elizondo and Keith Ciancia, who additionally acted as keyboardist and co-producer. (Not coincidentally, this is the principal cast of characters on Burnett's latest solo album, The True False Identity. See last month's issue for an in-depth interview with Burnett.) Singer/guitarist Keb' Mo,' an old friend of Wilson's, was also featured on a track.
Wilson only had one song, “Poet,” fully composed when she began working with Burnett and company at the Village Recorder in West L.A. during November 2004. Some other songs were still in the conceptual and fragmentary stage — Wilson, Burnett and the band worked on developing them together, sometimes through extensive jamming on different motifs and ideas — at the Village and Capitol Studios during early to mid-2005.
Wilson was highly receptive to most of Burnett's production notions, including using three drummers (also featured on Burnett's disc). “While we were in the studio, we all worked on the lyrics, including the engineer, Mike Piersante, who's also one of the writers,” Wilson says. “They were all feeding me ideas, and I think this was the first time I had such a collaborative situation. This took place over a period of a year, going back and forth, exchanging files, living with the music and communicating ideas, especially with Keith. He was a master, and I can't say enough about him. I call him the ‘texturizer.’ I've never seen anyone do such intensive work on a sound, an idea, a thought, an impression or a feeling. We had a really wonderful rapport — so much so that I felt like I was leaving family when [the record was completed].”
Because the music was so well-thought-out and the players so strong, Burnett decided to try a gutsy approach to the recording: going live to 2-inch tape. “That's the most fun,” Burnett comments. “It's the ultimate when the musicians are playing and the singers are singing. When they're finished, they can listen to the piece and say, ‘That's great,’ or, ‘Let's do it again.’ When you get one of those [takes], it's an incredible feeling of accomplishment. What can take months in the studio often happens in three minutes.
“With Cassandra, we used a combination of [live to tape] with some digital editing, and we also grabbed samples of things we recorded — and a few things from other sources — and moved them around and ‘composed’ with things we did live. Then, 10- or 15-minute pieces were cut down to five minutes.”
Ciancia gave a couple of examples of the sort of track modifications that were made along the way: “‘It Would Be So Easy’ was done during the first week and was about 20 to 30 minutes long,” he says. “I chopped it and made an arrangement, and then using an [Akai] MPC drum machine with that frame, rewrote it. ‘Go to Mexico’ is also backbeat-heavy and stems from a sample, too. That comes from my background in hip hop, and T Bone is a big fan of it, too. Mike Piersante's recordings were a blessing — dealing with several drum sets, guitars, basses and keyboards. The bleeds were minimal, so I could mute things out and rewrite on top of a drum track, vocal or something. That's something T Bone taught me; he just mutes everything down to a vocal and then maybe brings one element in. ‘See, that sounds great just like this,’” he says, mimicking his mentor.
Ciancia has worked often with Burnett during the past four years, and his responsibilities have varied greatly. “Each project is so different,” Ciancia explains from his L.A. home studio. “T Bone is obviously all over the place with different stuff. If it's going to be a live record, I'm usually hired on as a keyboard player. For this record, he wanted me to co-produce so I could spend some time working on it in my own studio and at his, directly with Cassandra. I've been learning from him as I go, and he's been generous to teach me a lot.” Ciancia, who also records and produces his own projects, only partially in jest calls Burnett's knowledge “Jedi Power.” He defined it as trusting people around him to do the right thing at critical points.
Piersante has been with the producer for about a decade now and has been behind the board for most of his albums during that time. Like Burnett, he's one of those guys who just loves music and the thrill of recording, and he's very enthusiastic about Wilson. “Even when she walked through the control room going ‘la-la-la,’” Piersante says, “you would stop what you were doing and just think, ‘Oh, what an amazing-sounding instrument!’ I was really focused on trying to make her comfortable and capturing all the glory she has to offer.”
To capture Wilson's vocals, Piersante used an AKG C 12 through a Neve preamp direct to the 2-inch recording deck. Many of the instruments were also cut through 1073 and 1081 modules. The consoles at the Village Recorder and Capitol Studios were used just for playback. A drummer himself, Piersante enjoyed the challenge of capturing three kits simultaneously. “I usually set up an overhead, and that will pretty much pick up the whole drum kit and cymbals,” he offers. “You get a nice envelope because you're miking from a couple of feet away and things tend to sound more natural that way. Often, I use some kind of dynamic [mic] for kick drum and snare. And there are always a few ribbons involved with whatever we do. I used a Coles mic over the back of Jim Keltner's shoulder and, of course, put old RCA  mics out in front of the drum kit. It makes a nice sound in the right room. Typically, T Bone will have the drummers playing very softly, and what we do is crank that up with the preamps and limit it pretty well. It gives you a nice, full sound because the drums are ringing and not choking off from being hit hard. I also used low baffling between the kits — which were three to five feet from each other — in a semicircle. So I try to minimize the bleed, but not get rid of it entirely since it's a beautiful thing for us.”
Mixing for Wilson's CD was left up to Piersante and Ciancia at Burnett's Electro Magnetic Studio in Brentwood, Calif., using the producer's vintage API board. Wilson and Burnett were often touring or involved with other things during that period, but they had imparted their own instructions in advance and checked mixes via the Internet.
“The hardest thing about mixing this whole record was keeping all the drum kits in phase,” Piersante notes. “Being that they were stretched across the whole panorama of things, that was something I tried to pay particular attention to. But you put Cassandra over the top of just about anything, it's going to sound good, and with a great music bed, it's not that hard to do.”
“A studio is not just a studio — it's the people who run it and who you are working with,” Wilson adds. “They're all very important, and it's a form of alchemy that you're able to put everything together. T Bone cracks the whip in a very quiet manner and that's what I love about him. When he wants you to do something, you do it without feeling as if you've been handled. There are very few producers who can do that well.”