“Eva Cassidy is one of the best Paul Simon interpreters”

“Eva Cassidy is one of the best Paul Simon interpreters,” says leading American music critic Geoffrey Himes after listening to her live album Nightbird.

Eva Cassidy hadn’t finished her first solo studio album by the end of 1995. The lucky few who had heard her infrequent gigs, though, were clamoring for recordings. Cassidy, 32, cashed in a small pension from her day job at a plant nursery to rent Washington’s most prominent jazz club, Blues Alley, for the first Monday and Tuesday of 1996. She begged her friends to fill the candlelit tables inside.

Though she wasn’t a purely jazz singer, jazz informed everything she did. Those 31 songs included jazz standards by Irving Berlin, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington as well as rock, folk, blues and soul numbers. Cassidy brought a folk-music confessionalism to a standard like Johnny Mercer’s “Autumn Leaves” and a swinging elegance to an R&B tune like Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

Eva at Blues Alley

Eva at Blues Alley

Cassidy was no diva; she didn’t overload the songs with vocal gymnastics and stratospheric notes. Quite the opposite, she detached the songs from their genre associations, so that each one became a kind of folk-blues-jazz hybrid. She pared them down to their emotional core and glided into that essence with effortless confidence. As important as her calm, unfussy phrasing was the tone of her mezzo voice-so glowing and disarming that she seemed to be confiding in each individual listener.

Even a song done as often as Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” sounded new in Cassidy’s throat. She was able to capture the gospel majesty of the song without ever coming off as self-aggrandizing. She didn’t sound like a preacher evangelizing to a congregation but like a nurse soothing a patient. Huddled around the flickering red hurricane lamp on each table at Blues Alley, each patron felt as if this woman, her blonde hair falling on a black turtleneck and the strap of a guitar, were his or her personal caretaker.

Paul Simon

Paul Simon

Cassidy could be considered one of Simon’s best interpreters; her posthumous albums also featured “American Tune” and “Kathy’s Song.” But it wasn’t until this new edition of Nightbird that we’ve heard her do Simon’s uptempo pop-reggae number, “Late in the Evening.” The band (bassist Chris Biondo, guitarist Keith Grimes, pianist Lenny Williams and drummer Raice McLeod) plays with brisk, jittery syncopation, but Cassidy sounds untroubled, in fact buoyed by the lyrics about a memorable night. She is in such control, in fact, that when she shifts up a gear and cries, “It was late in the evening, and I blew that room away,” her contagious joy signals not just the climax of the song but also the triumph of that January night.

The album Live At Blues Alley (containing only a few of the live recordings) was released in May and began to attract more and more attention. But in July, Cassidy noticed a pain in her hip, and when she was finally convinced to see a doctor, a fatal melanoma cancer was discovered in her bones. In October, she needed a walker to do her last show, and on Nov. 2, 1996, exactly 10 months after the first night at Blues Alley, she died.

Chuck Brown and Eva Cassidy

Chuck Brown and Eva Cassidy

“She was never up on becoming famous,” fellow musician Chuck Brown said in 2001. “She enjoyed what she was doing and the way she was doing it. Her music is being heard more now; they never knew the lady till after she left us. I just wish it had happened while she was still with us, but I’m happy that it did happen.”

Geoffrey Himes has written on a regular basis for the Washington Post, JazzTimes, Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine and others. His book on Bruce Springsteen Born in the U.S.A, was published by Continuum Books in 2005.

2 responses to ““Eva Cassidy is one of the best Paul Simon interpreters””

  1. Ralph Hasty says:

    My wife and I discovered Eva’s music less than a year ago, and have since enmeshed our music listening almost exclusively in her performances. Words cannot adequately describe her talents. So sad she couldn’t experience the wide acceptance of her gifts to us.

  2. Dan Danson says:

    You are so missed… listening to you still brings me to tears… bless you sweetheart

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