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Cassandra Wilson Celebrated Billie Holiday on April 4th at The Carolina Theatre of Durham

Cassandra Wilson will celebrate jazz singer and songwriter Billie Holiday in "Coming Forth by Day" at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 4th, at The Carolina Theatre of Durham (photo by Mark Seliger)

Cassandra Wilson celebrated jazz singer and songwriter Billie Holiday in “Coming Forth by Day” on Saturday, April 4th, at The Carolina Theatre of Durham (photo by Mark Seliger)

Anyone who wants to challenge nature and embody the works of Billie Holiday has a mountain to scale but when that person is Cassandra Wilson, the mountain becomes a mole hill and Holiday smiles from the great beyond. On April 4th, Wilson took the challenge at The Carolina Theatre of Durham; and as a part of the Duke Performances series, she brought the classics into the theater and made the 1,000+ seat venue feel like someone’s living room.

The master of ceremonies congratulates the audience for Duke’s win in the Final Four game (Wilson delayed her show by half an hour for the game against Michigan, a true testament to the respect she had for Durham’s basketball crowd); and introduces Wilson. “April 7 would have been Billie’s 100th birthday,” the master of ceremonies tells The Carolina Theatre‘s audience and Wilson’s latest CD, Coming Forth by Day: A Tribute to Billie Holiday, is her 19th album.

With her full lion’s mane of hair and sultry voice, Cassandra Wilson immediately launches into “Someday When I’m awfully low” (the standard “The Way You Look Tonight”) and seduces the audience, bringing them so completely into her world that one feels literally under her spell, as her predecessor did. She slithers through the song like a temptress, making love to the mic, as well as to every ear in the crowd. Though Wilson’s voice is unlike Holiday’s, she has the same tendency to crawl inside the lyrics and make the notes sound otherworldly.

When one pays tribute to a superstar, it is a challenge but as Wilson says, “I’m part of this legacy. I come from Billie by way of Abbey Lincoln. I know I’m in that line of singers, but I also know myself …. I always feel challenged and it made sense [to celebrate Billie’s music].” The list of songs came from one of Wilson’s friends, historian LaShonda Barnett (author of the recent release and highly-acclaimed novel Jam on the Vine), and the title of the album (Coming Forth by Day) is a loose translation of the title of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a nod to the face that Wilson is conjuring Billie’s spirit by singing her music.

That self-assurance becomes more evident as the concert ensues and Wilson kicks off her shoes to sing in bare feet, her five-piece band not so much backing her up as evoking different tones in her instrument: her voice.

She sings “Don’t Explain,” and her hand slides down the mic stand as she sinuously fends her way through the lyrics, crooning and whispering and growling, simultaneously, as if her heart is laid open and bleeding at her feet. She’s deep into the music and the various colors of sounds and lyrics, as Holiday was when she sang, and there are times it appears that Wilson is transported. Someplace else.

The saxophonist and violinist pull their notes from their instruments as she wanders the stage like a nymph or a music wizard, weaving her hands through the air, then pulling her fingers through the long golden brown tresses to bring forth magic. “I say I’ll build a mountain … sure I’m crazy, crazy in love.” She snaps her fingers, offsetting the jazz musicians, who are as restrained and controlled as she is like a willow tree.

In “You Go to My Head,” the drums are at their most powerful, and her deep voice ripples through the room. “You intoxicate my soul with your eyes.” She disappears offstage and lets the band finish the refrain.

When she wanders back with “All of Me,” it’s an almost painfully sad plea, as if begging for the end of a life. “How can I go on without you ….” Sometimes she places her hands on her belly, as if in meditation, paying attention to her breathing. Zen-like.

Her velvety contralto dips deep into “Good Morning Heartache.” She sinks into her knees to sing this one, finding a place nestled in an agonizing place, a nod to that moment when she realizes, “you’re the one who knew me when.”

When she comes to the final song in the performance — “I love my man. I’m a liar if I say I don’t” — Cassandra Wilson has lulled you into another world, ethereal and bluesy, true jazz. Like her idol, Wilson has been able to say so much with her music. She provides the canvas for the moments of life that are both wonderful and horrible, yet she can “let you in and keep you at a distance too.”

Cassandra Wilson in COMING FORTH BY DAY: A CELEBRATION OF BILLIE HOLIDAY (Duke Performances presents, April 4 in Fletcher Hall at The Carolina Theatre in Durham, NC).

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Cassandra Wilson (jazz vocalist and musician, born in 1955 in Jackson, MS): (official website), (Internet Movie Database), (Facebook Page), (Twitter page), and (Wikipedia).

Billie Holiday (nee Eleanora Fagan, Baltimore, MD-born jazz singer, 1915-59): (official website), (Internet Broadway Database), (Internet Movie Database), and (Wikipedia).


EDITOR’S NOTE: Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. She is also Dean of General Education and Developmental Studies at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, where she oversees the theater program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, and a member of the Person County Arts Council. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click To read more of her writings, click

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