Cassandra Wilson, 'Belly of the Sun' (2002)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


Cassandra Wilson had already solidified her aura — deep sorcery, commingled with dark sensuality — when she took up in an abandoned train station in Clarksdale, Miss. to make Belly of the Sun. 

Just as on her breakthrough Blue Note albums Blue Light 'Til Dawn (1993) and New Moon Daughter (1995), this one finds Wilson foraging through the back pages of the rustic American south, drawing whatever connection she can between Delta blues, early jazz, folk revivalism and adult-contemporary pop. This is an album extremely easy on the ears, which can make it a candidate for underestimation — especially by those who like to see their jazz vocalists pushing against limits, and not just the limits of genre.

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There's very little push in Belly of the Sun, which runs decisively more lean-back than lean-in. Singing "Waters of March," by Antônio Carlos Jobim, Wilson actually laughs in the middle of one phrase, as if she'd almost just tripped over a child's toy in the studio. "The Weight," a song by Robbie Robertson of The Band, has an instrumental backing almost too luxurious in its lightly distressed rustic twang, like a farmhouse dresser in the Restoration Hardware catalog.

But listen to how good she sounds on that track — on the whole album, really. A bit later in the decade, writing about a different Wilson recording, I put it this way: "Her deep-earth contralto is difficult to describe — it’s late-morning sunlight and bittersweet molasses, or “sultry” or “sumptuous” or whatever else you’ve got — but unfailingly easy to recognize, even for the portion of the population that would be hard-pressed to put a face to her name."

And more than either Blue Light or New Moon, this album revels in deep blues. Listen to Wilson's version of a Mississippi Fred McDowell gospel number, "You Gotta Move," featuring bottleneck guitar work from Richard Johnston and Kevin Breit, and rough, thumping percussion from Cyro Baptista and Jeffrey Haynes.

There's plenty to be said for Wilson's influence as a vocal omnivore: the ways in which she cleared a way for someone like Norah Jones, and set a bar for someone like Gregory Porter. There's also an interesting journey in Wilson's career, which began with the future-funk of M-BASE before settling into a heartland groove. We'll leave all that for now, though. Listen to this voice, and consider how it makes you feel. 

Belly of the Sun can be purchased on Amazon, or streamed on Apple Music or Spotify.

Luciana Souza, 'Brazilian Duos' (2002)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


Luciana Souza emerged as a figure of both high-literary and deep-musical ambition, and could remarkably claim both as her birthright. Hailing from São Paulo, Brazil, she is the daughter of two notable artists: the guitarist and singer-songwriter Walter Santos and the poet-lyricist Tereza Souza. She recorded jingles and commercials from early childhood, amassing hundreds of studio hours before she eventually found her way to Boston, for degrees at the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory.

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I first experienced Souza's voice as a splash of color on albums by musicians in that circle — notably Danilo Pérez's Motherland, and some contemporaneous releases by saxophonist Andrew Rathbun and composer-arranger Guillermo Klein. Somehow I missed her 1999 debut, but took careful note of an inspired follow-up in 2000, The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Other Songs

Then, in what felt both like a return to her roots and the subtle reinvention of a format, Souza released Brazilian Duos. A sparse, full-hearted take on the magnificent voz e violão tradition, it featured several brilliant guitarists — her father, along with Romero Lubambo and Marco Pereira. The album finds Souza paying homage to her cultural foundation, while firmly reserving the right to dash off in any direction of her choosing.

''People say, 'Oh, you're so eclectic,' and I usually say that I really don't look at styles anymore,'' she told Terry Teachout around the time of the album release, in a profile for the New York Times. ''I recognize, well, it's classical music or contemporary this or jazz that, or Brazilian, but I'm not worried about that. Only I don't want to be categorized as 'the Brazilian singer.' I look, I sound, I am, I wouldn't want to escape that — Portuguese is a delicious language to sing in, but I didn't want to be just that."

Still, it's glorious when she does embrace this music — as on the album-opening "Baião Medley." It stitches several songs together: "Respeita Januário" and "Qui Nem Julió," by Luiz Gonzaga and Humberto Teixeira; and "Romance," by the contemporary pop songwriter Djavan. Souza's composure, as always, is a marvel.

For more information about Luciana Souza, visit her website

Kurt Elling, 'Live in Chicago' (2000)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


There was already reason enough to hail Kurt Elling as one of our new jazz-vocal titans when he released Live in Chicago, in the second week of 2000. The album, recorded at the venerable Green Mill, is a manifesto: by turns searching, scorching or sentimental. What it communicates above all is the depth of connection between the singer and the song, and the band, and the room.

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A decade after this recording was made, I wrote a column for JazzTimes declaring Elling "the most influential jazz vocalist of our time." But almost every facet of my argument is already present on Live in Chicago, which gives Elling room to showcase his hyper-fluent, new-breed vocalese; his spark and swagger as a performer; and his empathic precision as a balladeer. His frame of reference is also distinctly contemporary, reflecting the tastes of an artist who came of age in the 1980s and '90s. 

One common knock on Elling, over the years, has been a charge of pretentiousness. I'm not among those who balks at the high-literary allusions in his lyrics, or the showbiz gleam in his presentation. But I will concede that to truly appreciate Elling, you have to go all in and take him at his word. A case in point: this version of "My Foolish Heart," his calling card at the time. In the middle of the performance is a mysterious detour: a poetic recitation of "One Dark Night," by the 16th-century Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross. 

Purchase or stream Live in Chicago here.