Cassandra Wilson spent most of the 80s looking for an identity. As the voice of Brooklyn’s envelope-pushing M-BASE collective she strove to find a distinctive voice, introducing original tunes with austere funk grooves, but she also interpreted standards with a conventional piano trio and unleashed her mahogany tones in the wide open spaces of Henry Threadgill’s New Air. By the end of the decade her open-ended improvising approached the brilliance of Betty Carter’s–but it wasn’t until 1993, when she recorded Blue Light ’til Dawn, that she figured out how best to channel what she’d developed. The setting for that record, dominated by an airy lattice of acoustic guitars, blurred the lines between jazz, blues, and adult pop a la Joni Mitchell, but Wilson’s deep, rich tone and languorous phrasing kept her firmly connected to her jazz roots. She’s been tweaking that formula since, taking a slight detour to pay homage to Miles Davis on Traveling Miles. Her latest, Belly of the Sun (Blue Note), was recorded in her native Mississippi, and the weeks she reportedly spent getting reacquainted with the Delta dirt beforehand pay off when she dives into the Fred McDowell classic “You Gotta Move,” accompanied only by Richard Johnston’s slide guitar and some tub thumping by Jeff Haynes. She also gives Robert Johnson’s “Hot Tamales” a charming turn. Some critics have complained that Wilson has finally drifted too far from jazz, and somewhat paradoxically others think she’s in a rut. It’s true that beautiful as it is, her “Just Another Parade,” a duet with acoustic soul star India.Arie, bears no resemblance to jazz. But when she interprets Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman,” the Band’s “The Weight,” and Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm” her creative impulses come straight out of the tradition. And while it’s also true that she’s become rather comfortable with this sound, another original, “Drunk as Cooter Brown”–a kind of Afro-Cuban country song that makes surprisingly effective use of a steel-pan drum–shows that she’s still taking chances. For this performance she’s joined by a stripped-down band featuring guitarist Marvin Sewell, bassist Mark Peterson, and percussionist Haynes. Saturday, September 14, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114.

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