Tuesday night’s “Austin City Limits” taping was a bit of a departure from the show’s standard fare, executive producer Terry Lickona acknowledged at the top of the show. Instead, it was a testament to the definitive Austin production’s continued efforts to use a wide angle lens to capture the greatest music of the day featuring internationally acclaimed jazz star Cassandra Wilson playing songs from her new Billie Holiday tribute album “Coming Forth by Day” which was released earlier this year, timed to coincide with the pioneering jazz singer’s 100th birthday.
Like Holiday, Wilson is blessed with a very distinctive voice, low, dark and rich with character. Digging into Holiday songbook she didn’t try to imitate the singer whose classic hits were made in the 1930s and ’40s, opting instead to make updated versions that were entirely her own. Joined by a six-piece band, who she graciously introduced near the top of the set, and an eight-piece string section, she led the audience on a spellbinding journey through lush soundscapes that bridged the liminal space between wistful nostalgia and wild innovation.
With traditional instrumentation, the low moan of a bass clarinet, the harmonic swells of strings, songs like “The Way You Look Tonight” and “All of Me” invoked the smoky theaters where Holiday’s sorrowful songs originated. Other songs like “Good Morning Heartache” and “Crazy, He Calls Me” introduced uncomfortable electronics, the high whine of a violin, dischordant guitar strains filtered through effects pedals, conjuring the digitally enhanced ache of the modern world.
On recordings Holiday’s voice is marked by a compelling fragility, a product of her difficult personal history marred by addiction and abuse. Wilson’s on the other hand is an instrument of poise, power and confidence. Even as she captured Holiday’s vulnerability, it was clear the 59-year-old singer enjoys freedom both personal and artistic, her predecessor could never imagine. Her performance was a testimonial to how far we all have come. But as she closed out the show with a haunting cover of “Strange Fruit,” sharply emphasizing each brutal detail — the bulging eyes, the twisted mouths — of the song about pre-civil rights era lynchings, she poignantly invoked the struggles that continue today, reminding us we still have a long way to go.