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On Andra Day’s ‘Cassandra (Cherith),’ a Soaring Voice Reaches Inward

The tart, bluesy quaver in Andra Day’s voice has a long heritage. It bends the well-tempered notes of the European scale into idiosyncratic microtones and mocks any inflexible rhythm. It reaches back through Jazmine Sullivan, Amy Winehouse, Erykah Badu, Esther Phillips, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith and of course Billie Holiday. Day won a Golden Globe portraying Holiday in the 2021 film “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” and recorded a full album of Holiday’s repertoire. She also learned deeply from her bittersweet amalgam of vulnerability and flintiness.

Throughout the history of American music, blues, jazz and soul singers have used the jazzy quaver for the subtlest nuances of emotion: for tension, playfulness, defiance, flirtatiousness, ache or just blithe ornamentation. Day deploys it all those ways, and more, on “Cassandra (Cherith),” her second album of her own songs.

Her first, “Cheers to the Fall,” was released back in 2015. It displayed her agility and power in dramatic, retro-flavored tracks, and it featured a resolute ballad, “Rise Up,” that became an anthem of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

Day followed “Cheers to the Fall” with a ChristmasEP in 2016 that included a duet with Stevie Wonder. Since then, she has released soundtrack songs and singles and recorded some guest appearances. But “Cassandra (Cherith)” makes clear that Day has been stockpiling material; she is a writer and producer, alongside many collaborators, on all of its 16 songs.

Day’s 2015 debut album had a reverberant, widescreen, retro sound. By contrast, “Cassandra (Cherith)” favors focused close-ups; it heightens details, making Day’s voice more exposed and even more daring. Throughout the album, her delivery feels questing and improvisatory. She’s so sure of her melodies that she can embellish them at any moment, stretching or rushing or wriggling them as the impulse strikes.

She breezes across styles and eras. From a base in neo-soul, with hip-hop beats underpinning sinuous R&B melodies, Day also touches on jazz, Motown, jazz, bossa nova, piano rock and vintage-sounding orchestral pop. But the most important sound on Day’s album is her voice. It’s precise but uninhibited, sometimes carefree and sometimes fiercely intimate.

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