Grammy-award-winning jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson’s new CD isn’t really new; she’s compiled 11 popular songs under the title Closer to You: the Pop Side, all of which have appeared on previous albums. And while Wilson’s voice is rich and eclectic, some of her treatments of these pop classics may send purists running.
The choice of selections is eclectic, too, ranging from songs by Neil Young to Van Morrison and Robbie Robertson, with some lesser-known tunes included as well. One in particular is by Jakob Dylan and called “Closer to You,” which I hadn’t heard until I took a listen to his version, even though I own two early Wallflowers CDs and am a big fan.
Wilson’s album is hard to classify. Although the songs are pop tunes, her recordings of them are distinctly not pop; in fact she brings her superb jazz voice to every one, giving each her own special twist. Cyndi Lauper’s “After Time” and Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” benefit from Wilson’s renditions, while other songs seem to lose some of their passion. “I Can’t Stand the Rain” and “ Lay, Lady, Lay” particularly suffer, I think, while Robertson’s wondrous classic “The Weight” stands up well to Wilson’s voice and treatment.
This CD is a mixed bag, though. I rather liked it and it grew on me the more I listened to it, but I would hesitate to recommend it to all but die-hard Wilson fans. Some of the songs, like “Love is Blindness,” sound almost like easy listening, while the album as a whole, I couldn’t help but think, would make good background music for lovemaking.
There’s no getting around Wilson’s amazing voice and vocal range and she is also an accomplished musician, arranger and producer. But I don’t think an entire album of pop songs—these in particular—does either her voice or her legend justice. I saw her at Wolftrap several years ago and she wowed the crowd and me, and her live performances are pretty wonderful, as are her jazz classics. Yet in the end, Closer to You is just an odd bit of music.