Some performers have a way with re-imagining and interpreting a song; some know how to give a great song a greater canvas; some can take a mediocre song and make it worth its weight in gold. Such were the skills and talents of Eva Cassidy, who died 20 years ago after a brief battle with melanoma. Recorded in January of 1996, she would be gone just a mere ten months later. She’d released only two albums’ worth of recorded music in her lifetime, but her posthumous Songbird album topped the British charts in early 2000.
This “new” album, Nightbird, is a 2 CD containing Ms. Cassidy’s entire performance at Blues Alley jazz club in her native Washington D.C. on January 3rd, 1996 – exactly 20 years ago. 31 tracks, including 8 previously unreleased songs. And the range of songs, eras and feel is something very special. Two songs into this album, her rendition of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” is the first to really strike me; subdued, sparse with clean sounding guitars and her voice fluctuates just right. Sting’s “Fields Of Gold” is given a delicate treatment and takes an already fine song and gives it a new emotional depth; her whole band starts to kick in and cook on “Route 66” (which most people don’t remember was, indeed, a jazz-oriented track); on her reading of “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, she brings it to a near-gospel level and infuses it with soul. “Fever” (yes, THAT “Fever”) rolls from lows to highs and has a restraint that I’ve never heard given to this song – and it works perfectly.
From the second disc come the personal standouts – “People Get Ready”, the Curtis Mayfield masterpiece is done with precision, taste and a quiet fireyness; stunningly, The Box Tops’ “The Letter” is slowed down, reshaped to have a blues-y groove and a builds itself up into a rave-up with unrestrained power; “Son Of A Preacher Man” definitely draws from Dusty Springfield’s style but here, Ms. Cassidy gave it a slyness that the original missed. It’s only fitting that the final song of the set is her very quiet and passionate delivery of “What A Wonderful World” – you cannot help but be moved by this.
It’s always easy to say “what if” but I would like to think that were Eva Cassidy here today, she would be one of the biggest stars in the world. Certainly, by way of this album, her star still shines very brightly.
Nightbird is available now