The smart money has been on Cassandra Wilson for a couple of years now: to jazz insiders, this is the woman who might take vocal improvisation to the next level, building on the accomplishments of Ella, Sarah, and Carmen to do as much for her era as those earlier giants did for their own. That may seem an unlikely projection–but only if you haven’t heard her sing. Describing Wilson’s rich, bottomy contralto in musical terms doesn’t quite work. Burnished walnut, sailboats at dusk, muted Armagnac, autumn leaves–those may not work either, but they’ll get you a little closer. Wilson sings with a liberated phrasing and a lyrical hyperexpressivity; think of a younger, less-developed version of Betty Carter–one for the 90s–and you’ll start to get the picture. Refusing to restrict herself to any one musical direction, Wilson has recorded thoroughly modern works with Henry Threadgill, an album of sumptuous standards, and most recently a project inspired by a science fiction comic-book narrative of her husband’s. Her Chicago club debut could feature any of the above, and is practically guaranteed to send you soaring into the night. Tonight and Saturday, Cotton Club, 1710 S. Michigan; 341-9787.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brad Guice.