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Cassandra Wilson

Jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson's low, warm alto descends on the listener's consciousness as might a purple-and-magenta twilight. And on her 15th recording, Belly of the Sun, Wilson's tasteful yet challenging song selections juggle a melancholy combination of jazz, blues and pop.

Some observers have criticized Wilson for repeating the formula so successful on her albums Blue Light Til Dawn in 1993 and New Moon Daughter in 1996--that of covering contemporary pop and traditional blues songs and transforming them into idiosyncratic new jazz standards for today. (She diverged from this pattern with the 1999 recording Traveling Miles, a tribute to the music of Miles Davis.) But simply observing a pattern in Wilson's body of work ignores the significant point that Belly of the Sun, which the singer produced herself, is Wilson's most accomplished and satisfying album.

Playing cover tunes is a minefield in which homage can easily become parody, in which a too-faithful rendition becomes redundant and a too-radical variation seems disrespectful. Wilson balances handily between self-indulgence from creative risk, and the results include an inspired interpretation of Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman" that actually improves on the original.

But it's a pleasure to declare, at the risk of sounding a tad fey, that Wilson's voice feels like a comforting caress when she, accompanied by a lovely acoustic-guitar hook, sings the familiar lyrics: "And I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time." With this performance, the singer convinces us that she believes the emotional truth in what has been known until now a kitschy Glen Campbell hit from the 1970s.

So it goes through Belly of the Sun, on songs written by artists as varied as Robbie Robertson, Antonio Carlos Jobim, James Taylor, Bob Dylan and Robert Johnson. Another priceless gem is the tender guitar-and-washtub take on Mississippi Fred McDowell's "You Gotta Move."

Wilson has perfected the act of adapting other writers' songs, but her new originals show a compositional maturity that was lacking in the past. For evidence, listen to the funky folk-blues of "Justice," the lush multi-tracked acoustic guitars of "Just Another Parade" (a duet with neo-soul diva India.Arie) or the playful Caribbean groove of "Drunk as Cooter Brown." Better yet, simply submerge yourself wholly in her bewitching new album; you may not want to come up for air.

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