Sometimes the brightest flames shine for the briefest time. Life is funny that way. A virtually unheard of songstress named Eva Cassidy has become one of the all time leaders in album sales for solo vocal musicians with essentially all the music sales occurring after she died at the incredibly unfair age of 33 years of age. Toiling in essentially complete obscurity in small clubs around Washington DC in the 1990’s, Eva produced a few recorded sets of music that represent our only available record of her brilliant versatility in the entire lexicon of song music, regardless of the genre. At a point where it looked like a wider public may finally recognize her talent, she took ill, and past from our view in a few short months. A solitary melanoma removed from her back three years prior, had metastasized and spread virulently and ruthlessly throughout, and the woman known as the Songbird was extinguished.
Eva was borne and spent her entire brief life in the Washington DC area, but her song interpretation was innate and universal. A talented self taught musician, she understood the instrument that was the human voice and brought out all its capacities. She therefore showed an amazing range that included the ability to sing gospel, jazz, country, and popular music with equal skill, and an interpretative quality that made unique the most well known songs. Her treatment of Harold Arlen’s “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” made her an ‘overnight’ sensation in England several years after her death, and is achingly beautiful and respectful to the wistful melancholies of the music and Yip Harburg’s lyrics. She could additionally ramp up her pace and swing in the best traditions of Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee without mimicking them, as appreciated in songs like “Cheek To Cheek”. She had a spot-on higher range that allowed her to drill notes in the way of the great gospel singers without sounding harsh. She was simply a magnificent musical vehicle for the Cosmic American Sound that had we had any more time to appreciate, may have put her in the pantheon of the short list of singers we turn to when we think of the great interpreters of that songbook.
Eva Cassidy gave us a special gift , recording her concert at the night club Blues Alley in the Washington DC area just a few months before her death in 1996. Thankfully some video exists that helps us to appreciate the depth of her genius. When we listen, we are not ready but are inevitably drawn, like a moth to the light, to the brillant comet trail that was Eva Cassidy’s art.