From the Random Endorsement Files: the new pitchwoman for Volkswagen appears to be none other than Lenny Kravitz… ‘s drummer. That would be Cindy Blackman, whose appearances in Kravitz’s videos have been, for this writer, all that truly matters about Kravitz’s recording career. Witness her magnificence in the 1993 video for “Are You Gonna Go My Way”!
There she is amidst all the dread-flailing and fancy lights – she’s the only one in the whole video not throwing her hair around. In fact, her whole body seems completely consumed in the generation of the song’s relentless beat. That singularity of purpose coupled with giant black sunglasses and auburn chrysanthemum afro make her the most magnetic sight in a video full of people trying really, really, really hard to hold our attention. There’s really no one else in the video I want to look at, and I can’t think of anyone else who projects such a mystifyingly wonderful stage presence from behind a drum kit without opening his or her mouth.
Which, apart from the shear randomness of the casting, is what makes her appearance in this new Volkswagen ad such a surprise: Cindy Blackman speaks! Playing the leader of the house band (Kravitz’s band, minus the Lenny) for a talk show hosted by a VW bug with a comically thick accent and an effusively flattering manner, she delivers the familiar tagline – “Europeans are crazy” – with a withering cool. Even better though is the “whooo” she launches before she and the rest of the band play the ad out. The vocal equivalent of the ascending flare of a firecracker just before it explodes into its colors, that “whooo” is what makes the commercial for me – a nanosecond of good old-fashioned, retro-soul, dance-to-the-music joy, incorruptible even within the context of something so crass as a car ad (albeit a crazy European one).
Of course, more than making want to check out the new VW Tiguan, the ad made me want to look further in Cindy Blackman’s work, and as might have been predicted, the Lenny Kravitz connection is not just the tip of the proverbial iceberg (she’s played on Joss Stone’s records too), it’s also largely an anomaly in a career that’s found the 48-year-old Brooklynite jamming with a virtual who’s who of contemporary jazz players – Bill Laswell, Cassandra Wilson, George Benson, Hugh Masekela, and her most frequent collaborator bassist Ron Carter, among many others – and, with her gift for dynamic Tony Williams style polyrhythms, holding her own quite well in a still-very-much male-dominated genre on a still-very-much mail-dominated instrument.
Since 1987, she’s released 10 albums as a band leader, and though her most recent album – 2004’s monumental double-disc Music for a New Millennium – is woefully out of print (at the time of this writing, Amazon has a single third party listing for the album, selling for $170), you can hear a few tracks from the album, recorded with saxophonist JD Allen, keyboardist Carlton Holmes, and bassist George Mitchell on Blackman’s website. I’m particularly digging “Letter to Theo”. Whooo!