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Conjure Woman

originally published May 4, 1999 / VILLAGE VOICE

I have always found it slightly unsettling that so many of my parent's generation christened my male peers Miles. It is no easy invocation. Some may even call it a curse. Or at least a weight. Miles is beyond complicated, beyond icon, beyond genius. He is beyond his mammoth musical talent. He is in many ways, like so many great Geminis who marry their separate selves, beyond definition. Late in Miles's musical career, Stanley Crouch called him a "death's head hovering over" modern jazz. My friend, the artist Arthur Jafa, read beyond the dis and appropriated Crouch's observation in a spooky painting he calls "Winged Death Head." For folks like A.J., those who are struggling with Black genius both as an intellectual construct and a reality, the very notion

of Miles can be crippling. How can we make our cinema, our fine art, our utterances, worthy of placement in the same room as say the Big Fun album cover? We are a people, no matter our conscious practices guided by ancestral worship.

Of course Miles personified cool. Was flippant. And perhaps more important, blessed us with the most essential of 21st-century survival poses— irreverence. So our obsession would have smelled to him too much like a gallery foyer. Like cheap white wine. It is unlikely he would have felt honored by Cassandra Wilson's newest CD, Traveling Miles. He might have done something like spit at the album cover's photograph of her as him. But we can't be concerned with reptilian Miles when we honor him. With misogynist Miles. We bury that Miles. Bad Miles. Miles as Gabriel is who we ask to rain on us. Miles who made the trumpet whisper. Miles whose sound was in every way feminine, in every way sensual. In every way loving.

I'm just returning to Cassandra Wilson. Though many of my sister-friends rediscovered jazz because of her, I spent most of her last two albums avoiding her. Same way I avoided Tracy Chapman. I remember hearing pieces of her collaboration with producer Craig Street, and I was moved by her intimate music video for "Until." But I'm cranky and hard to please, and well, even if Joni is one of her heroes, I just plain like it better when Cassandra's playing jazz. All right, fuck it, real jazz. I've always known she is a great thinker, and have enjoyed reading the many articles that have accompanied the success of her two pop albums. But her as Miles? Her in Miles drag? Her penning lyrics to Miles (and Wayne Shorter) compositions? This was no easy sell.

Forget that the Times critic and his unskeptical friends had already found reason to celebrate— I found plenty of reasons to be highly suspicious. The most glaring discrepancy in my mind was Cassandra's sound: a mud deep, rich alto. So masculine. Miles, as I suggested, is in every way piercing, womanly. So I stared at Honey in her khakis and ascot a full week before I even cracked the cellophane. It is a compelling image. I read the lyrics: " . . . the night of my conception/the stars were fixed . . . here in this quiet place we own/we're reborn." She is a magnificent writer. Still, I approach the music gingerly. Spend time with her remakes of "Someday My Prince Will Come" and "Time After Time" and am in every way satisfied. There is sweet Miles. Miles who took his time with the music. Slept with the note. And all with no horn. I see where she's going. Be it Chango or Oshun, you've got to first deal with the gatekeeper, Elegua.

"Seven Steps" is a joyful interpretation that could be added to hymnbooks. Sanctified Miles. And her "Sky and Sea (Blue and Green)" from Miles's universally celebrated Kind of Blue has been in her live repertoire long enough to sound very much like perfection. On Shorter's "Never Broken (ESP)," she lays so deep in the cut, like a masked thief— adding not only lyrics but a mandocello— that the song becomes hers.But it is in her interpretation of "Run the Voodoo Down" from Miles's wildly inventive Bitches Brew that she truly dances with Miles. Cornet player Olu Dara, known to my generation as Nas's father, uses his horn to charm Miles from resting; Cassandra takes him down south, further than Alabama. Maybe Cuba, but more like Bahia, where resurrections are served with morning plantain. Cassandra is never mounted. Even in death, Miles is too composed for that. Sharkskin wrinkles. But she displays a cool courage that makes her tribute seem like the most natural thing. Like a road that simply must be traveled. She ignores the warnings about the duplicitous nature of the dead. That those we never really knew may not all be who we need them to be. We are discouraged from engaging them, from inviting them into our realms. But how then shall we truly embrace them in dance?


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