Gentle hand drums set up a simple pattern of beats, and an acoustic bass plucks in tandem with the rhythm. Soon, a delicate melodic pattern issues from the high strings of a mandolin, and an acoustic guitar joins the mix. This is Cassandra Wilson's method of capturing the heaviness of "The Weight," the Band classic that opens her brand-new album, Belly of the Sun.
"Take a load off, Fanny," she sings, with a solitary voice echoing her impassioned offer, "and put the load right on me." In the Band's original, the load was taken up by a group of voices, joining one by one in a luxurious harmony. Wilson assumes the entire burden, centering her rich, deeply moaning alto in front of the now more powerful acoustic instruments. The song is about the offer of taking burdens, the methods of seeking forgiveness, the mysteries of history and the relationship of the individual to the collective -- themes that resonate throughout the album.
"That song, 'The Weight,' was not planned," Wilson explains. "The very first day of recording, we were having great difficulty. It was very hot. We had a mobile recording truck that came from Muscle Shoals, Ala. It was a truck that had basically been used for the recording of choirs, and that's usually just a two-track setup. It hadn't been used for 24-track recording for a long time, so there were some problems just setting it up and getting all the tracks to work."
A storyteller whether she's speaking or singing, Wilson settles in to set the stage, one detail following another: "While I was in the vocal booth, setting up the microphone, one of the engineers, Sean Macke, asked me if I knew I was about to sing through the same circuitry that Levon Helm had sung through. He went on to explain that that truck was also used for the recording of The Last Waltz. [Macke] and I started singing 'The Weight,' and Kevin Breit [Wilson's longtime guitarist] heard us and said, 'It's a great song.' He said we should do it. I said, 'Well, I don't know; there are a couple of definitive versions out there. I don't know if we can add anything to it.' He worked out an arrangement, and we all added to it, and one thing led to another, and it became the first tune on the album."
More than just the opening track, it became the song on which all the others lean, the reference point for the themes of the record, both musical and lyrical. Wilson went to Clarksdale, Miss., intending to produce a blues album to honor the Mississippi Delta, where she grew up. That would have been a good record, as demonstrated by the straight blues covers she's sung on albums such as Blue Light 'Til Dawn or New Moon Daughter. But Wilson couldn't let herself be limited to such an obvious idea, and she created something deeper, more timely, more original. The blues are always present on Belly of the Sun, but rarely in a formal sense. Even when she covers a Robert Johnson song, "Hot Tamales," it's the one example we have of Johnson leaving the 12-bar form for something less serious, more full of hokum than hell. This seemingly playful trifle closes the album.
In her press kit, Wilson describes Robbie Robertson's song as "purposefully vague, but you hear biblical themes, themes of civil rights, of discontent and redemption." "The Weight" is surreal, with characters pulled out of context, interacting and exchanging their burdens, sometimes seeking to take them, sometimes seeking to lose them and sometimes seeking to avoid them. Wilson follows this song with her own composition "Justice," which lugs out the largest weights of all in American history, racism and slavery. She sings, "Give me a box of reparation/No not the little one, I want the big one that matches my scars." Here the weight is real, the interactions definite, but the desire to exchange or avoid burdens is even more apparent.
So, what could she do to follow that song? Pretend racism never existed, perhaps, with a gorgeous version of an old pop standard, "Darkness on the Delta." Here, accompanied only by 80-plus-year-old Abie "Boogaloo" Ames on piano, Wilson sings of a world in which blacks are everywhere but never mentioned. This is a song about the delights of Southern living, of the joys of the cotton fields, of the place in which "all God's children have someone to love." It's an ironic reading, especially in context, but it's also obvious that Wilson wants to believe in such a perfect place. She knows the song is a lie, but she sings it like a beautiful truth.
Despite such heavy topics, Belly of the Sun is not a somber record. Wilson is entirely too musical, too creative and too diverse to let the album get bogged down under the weight. She borrows lilts from Brazilian pop music, firsthand from Antonio Carlos Jobim for "Waters of March" and secondhand from James Taylor for "Only a Dream in Rio." These songs are more about individual relationships than the tangled social interactions of the first three cuts, and the playfulness in Wilson's voice, which delights in springing around the complex rhythms of the Brazilian style, is matched by the originality of the arrangements. "Only a Dream in Rio" transfers the gentle fingerpicking of Brazilian guitar traditionalists onto banjo to great effect.
All the songs benefit from Wilson's constantly evolving use of musical space. Every instrument -- from her thick, rich voice to the various guitars and other plucked strings to the diverse range of percussion -- is allowed to exist in an open area of sound. The music doesn't pile in on itself; rather, it bounces off the openness, relates to everything around it and builds up layers of delicious resonance.
The fertile sparseness of the arrangements stems in part from Wilson's use of hand drums as her main rhythm instruments rather than the traditional trap drums of most jazz musicians. "It changes the acoustic environment," she explains. "It changes the space because a traditional drum kit takes up a lot of space, from the high end to the low end. You have ringing cymbals, and traditional jazz drummers tend to use a lot of cymbal work. That's the one thing that always bothered me. It's too much space that it takes. Sometimes it's difficult to cut through or to find a comfortable space for the voice to live in."
As a singer, of course, Wilson could be expected to lobby for the primacy of the voice, but it's the song itself that concerns her. A technician of extreme virtuosity, she's capable of singing a wide range of notes clearly and cleanly, of playing with the rhythms of her delivery as if the beats were taffy, of enriching the harmonic possibilities of any given chord with a perfectly chosen note. Her band is also quite good, but the members don't take a lot of solos or otherwise call attention to themselves or their playing. Everything is in support of the song.
"There has to be an element of drama to make a good song," Wilson explains. "It's basically storytelling through music that makes a song. It's hard to separate the lyric from the music. The lyric wouldn't be the same if it were a different melody. It's a combination of the melody and lyric."
And, obviously, the arrangement: All the parts in Wilson's world go to make up the whole. "I'm a musician, which means I'm a trained musician," Wilson concludes with justifiable pride. "A large part of it is natural. Most people, when they enter an art, they have a natural propensity for that art. But there's a lot of discipline that goes into it and hard work, and that's what you hear -- at least I hope that you hear it. There's a lot of hard work that goes into understanding music, being able to analyze music, being able to approach it not only from an emotional perspective but from a scientific perspective."