Cassandre McKinley's latest recording "DRAGONFLY"
At this stage of her singing career, Cassandre McKinley understands that to convey the message within a song, you need to have lived it. She selected each tune on Dragonfly with care, then transformed this material from a variety of genres – a bit of jazz, some pop, R&B and soul, plus a healthy dose of country – and delivered them as her own.
Artfully and soulfully, she has blurred the hazy lines between genres. In so doing, she also underscores the essence of jazz. It is not a repertoire of specific songs. Rather, it is a process whose core involves stretching a song in new and different ways each time you perform it.
There is a soulful country feel to much of Dragonfly, no matter the origins of its ten offerings. The soulfulness comes from Cassandre’s musical heart (recalling her splendid 2004 Marvin Gaye songbook CD, Baring The Soul. Much of the country material involves songs that were favorites of her late father. Some songs here have their own histories of crossing genres, depending on which artist covered them through the years.
“Plain Gold Ring” was first recorded in 1956 by jazz singer Kitty White, and covered two years later by genre-defying singer-pianist Nina Simone. Pianist and singer Jack Hammer wrote the tune – and credited it to one of his several aliases, George Stone. Cassandre freshens the 1962 recording “All Alone Am I,” a chart topping hit for pop singer Brenda Lee, with wistfulness and optimism that is reinforced by Duke Levine’s conversational guitar solo. New York Voices founding member Peter Eldridge, a fellow faculty member at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, joins Cassandre for a beautiful, knowing duet on the Everly Brothers’ hit “Let it Be Me.”
While it opens the country portion of the program, the Roy Wells tune “Lonely Wine” is another genre-bender. This one was first recorded by Les Baxter and His Orchestra in 1952, and covered by R&B singer Sonny Till and Patti Page in recordings a year later – a full decade before Roy Orbison, Mickey Gilley, and others got their hands on it. Cassandre also gives us a country-ish interpretation of “I Miss You So,” which has been recorded extensively by artists in many genres. “Change Your Mind” is this session’s lone original, and it fits the relationships theme. There’s a lot of country soul in this one, which Cassandre wrote with pianist Jeff D’Antona. It was written from the perspective of the one who thinks they've found their soul mate and one true love– and the object of their affection knows this to be true as well but with love sometimes not being enough, instead, chooses to walk away. The plea to "see the light" ensues.
The Nina Simone songbook returns with Cassandre’s soulful take on “Do I Move You” from 1967’s Nina Simone Sings The Blues, the first of nine recordings that “the High Priestess of Soul” recorded for RCA. Cassandre digs into her R&B side with great, hip effect. That soulfulness continues on her cover of Roy Orbison’s 1961 hit “Mama,” with a few lyrical gender adjustments. Sonny Barbato’s beautiful, understated accordion accompaniment enhances its musical shading.
Vaudeville composers Lou Handman and Roy Turk wrote “Are You Lonesome Tonight” in 1926, 34 years before Elvis Presley turned it into a hit. The spare backing of the rhythm section, D’Antona, bassist Marty Ballou and drummer Dave Mattacks enhances Cassandre’s contemplative delivery. This cover is a beauty, even more knowing and heart-felt than those of Frank Sinatra, Donny Osmond and Bryan Ferry.
“Out of the Rain” is the perfect closer. A wide range of artists – Etta James, Jessi Colter, Joe Cocker and even the southern rock jam band Gov’t Mule, has covered Tony Joe White’s song. Cassandre’s version is all about letting go and moving forward from pain and sadness with optimism and maturity.
Her new comfort zone is a great one, musically and personally. All of the genre busting works for this fine singer. Cassandre feels much freer with her music than ever before. “I’m no stranger to coloring outside the lines,” she says. “This was cathartic. No one hands you a book that says this is how it should be done. The whole idea is to bring new life to the music. It should be personal, opening up a diary, here’s who I am.”
Enjoy Cassandre’s latest chapter. I did.
- Ken Franckling
(Veteran freelance jazz journalist and photographer Ken Franckling was United Press International’s jazz columnist for 15 years. He writes for JazzTimes, HotHouse, All About Jazz and his blog.)