Cassandra Wilson 'Couldn't Wait' To Reinvent The Billie Holiday Songbook On Coming Forth By Day, one of today's premier jazz singers pays an imaginative tribute to one of her idols, born 100 years ago. As Wilson says, a simple imitation "would be almost insulting."

Cassandra Wilson 'Couldn't Wait' To Reinvent The Billie Holiday Songbook

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL OF ME")

BILLIE HOLIDAY: All of me - why not take all of me?

RATH: Billie Holiday was born 100 years ago this week. Countless singers have been inspired by Lady Day, but only Cassandra Wilson could've delivered such a fantastic tribute, her new album "Coming Forth By Day."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL OF ME")

CASSANDRA WILSON: (Singing) Take my lips. I want to lose them. Take my arms. I never use them.

RATH: From one singer who gives me chills to another, I wanted Cassandra Wilson to explain it to me. What makes Billie Holiday so special?

WILSON: We witness in Billie Holiday's music the beginning of the jazz vocal age, really. It's - her phrasing is very conversational, and it swings - it moves with the musicians. She's very much in charge of her place in the music. She is in control of the story, and in control of her cadence.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T EXPLAIN")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) Hush now, don't explain. Just say you'll remain. I'm glad you're bad. Don't explain.

RATH: I want to talk about the song that opens the album, "Don't Explain." I first heard you sing this song - it was 20 years ago, I think now, in the Courtney Pine album, "Modern Day Jazz Stories."

WILSON: Wow, that's funny. I had forgotten about that.

RATH: Oh, yeah (laughter).

WILSON: Yeah.

RATH: It was a great version.

WILSON: You remember it.

RATH: Tell me about your approach to this song this time, because it's different from any version I've heard before.

WILSON: It's a different version because it takes more of a womanist reading, you know? The reading is not so much I'm the victim or you cheated on me. It's more of a sense of you may be doing something, but it needs to stop right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T EXPLAIN")

WILSON: (Singing) Hush now. Don't explain. What is there to gain? I'm glad I'm back. Don't explain.

The original lyric says cry to hear folks chatter. And I know you cheat. Right or wrong, doesn't matter, as long as you're with me, sweet. Well, I changed that lyric around.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T EXPLAIN")

WILSON: (Singing) Don't want to hear folks chatter about you trying to cheat. Right or wrong, it matters if you want to be feel my sweets.

And we know what my sweets are, don't we?

RATH: People could figure that out.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: There are some songs on this album - I think of "These Foolish Things" or "The Way You Look Tonight." And I've heard these songs so many times I'd almost expect the circuit to be burned out in my brain. But somehow you're still giving me chills with these songs.

WILSON: Wow, these are great pieces, you know? And they're timeless. I couldn't wait to get inside of this material and spruce it up or reinvent it and do wild and crazy things to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THESE FOOLISH THINGS")

WILSON: (Singing) Tinkling piano in the next apartment. These stumbling words that told you what my heart meant. A fair ground, painted swings - these foolish things remind me of you.

RATH: Now, Billie Holiday, of course, did famous versions of "These Foolish Things" and "The Way You Look Tonight." But you're not trying to sound like her. What part of Billie Holiday are you trying to evoke here in these songs?

WILSON: Well, I'm in that line of singers that really mind the emotional content in a song. What are we trying to say emotionally? How do you steer clear of the cliches and go straight for the heart of the song? It's kind of - well, it's beyond improper - it's considered rude in jazz to imitate someone. So for me to attribute to Billie Holiday and imitate her style or her context would be almost insulting.

RATH: And you have definitely one of her most famous songs on here, "Strange Fruit," the song about lynchings in the South. And, you know, I've thought about this song for years as a historical piece, but you feel so urgent in the way you're singing it. I almost expect you to say black lives matter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

WILSON: (Singing) Black body swaying in the southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

WILSON: It's very, very timely. You know, it's a very important piece. And unfortunately, we still have to be aware of racism and particularly the hunting of young black men. It is more emphatic because it's ridiculous that we would still be dealing with these issues in 2015.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

WILSON: (Singing) Pastoral scene of the gallant south, the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth.

RATH: You have one of your own songs on his own record. It's called "Last Song For Lester." And there's a story behind the song. Could you tell it?

WILSON: Well, the story of Billie Holiday's love for Lester Young - they were musical soul mates. But they had a falling out. They hadn't spoken with each other. So while Billie Holiday was in London, she heard that Lester Young had passed away. And so she dropped everything and immediately flew back to the United States to attend the funeral. She fully expected to be able to sing for him because they were so very close. Everyone knew that they had the strongest bond. But she was not allowed to sing. So this devastated her. And she said, in fact, that it was such a blow to her, that she said I'll be the next to go. And five months later, she also succumbed to illness and passed away.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST SONG FOR LESTER")

WILSON: (Singing) I flew from far away. They said the last notes of your tenor played. You faded fast. Now I have one regret. I couldn't hold those hands that I loved the best.

RATH: That's Cassandra Wilson. Her new tribute to Billie Holiday is called "Coming Forth By Day." It comes out on Tuesday. Cassandra Wilson, thank you for another great album and for the conversation. It's been a real pleasure speaking with you.

WILSON: Thank you, Arun. It's been a great pleasure speaking with you. Be well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST SONG FOR LESTER")

WILSON: (Singing) But I do it - I do it all again.

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