CHICAGO — If you listen to Chicago saxophonist Sharel Cassity’s compelling new album, the aptly named “Fearless,” you never would know how ill she was when she recorded it.
Her tone sounds full, her technique nimble, the joy of her music-making unmistakable.
But just a few weeks before the recording sessions in July 2019, Cassity received a diagnosis for why she had felt so sick for the past year: post-Lyme disease.
In February 2019, “I started getting numb hands, numb feet — severely,” says Cassity. “My hands were getting very stiff. I was constantly tired. You feel like you’re covered with rocks all the time.”
Some doctors said she had carpal tunnel syndrome. Others said asthma.
“What about my feet?” she asked, pointing out that those diagnoses didn’t explain her numbness there.
“Well, we don’t know,” the doctors responded.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines Lyme disease as an illness “transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks.”
“If you get a tick bite, and you’re not treated within two weeks or very soon, you develop post-Lyme disease,” explains Cassity. “If you have it over a year, apparently it doesn’t really ever go away. It attacks your central nervous system. You get meningitis symptoms, ALS symptoms. I had points where I was limping when I walked. Or I couldn’t really move my hands the way I wanted to.”
But Cassity already had written the music, booked the studio time and obtained plane tickets for bassist Alex Claffy and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr. to fly here for the recording sessions. They were to join Cassity and pianist Richard Johnson, her husband, at Victorian Recording studios in Barrington.
Cassity simply wasn’t going to give all that up. Even at her sickest, in fact, she never stopped performing, traveling or teaching.
“I had IVs in my arms for three months of treatment,” she says. “I didn’t tell anyone. I would go on gigs and sit on a stool because I was pretty weak. I could still play. I would make myself play. If I sat on a stool, then I would have enough energy to play. If I got dizzy, at least I was sitting down.
“I made the gigs. I was teaching at four universities, one in Wisconsin, so I was on the road and teaching for 52 hours a week and also playing. I flew to New York and played the Blue Note. I was limping at the time, and the band members got really concerned: What’s wrong?
“I said, ‘It’s my knee.’”
When it came time to record, Cassity had 79% lung capacity, “and then it got worse from there,” she says.
So she knew from the outset that she wasn’t going to sound her best on this album.
“I thought: The recording is a document, it’s where I am now,” says Cassity. “This is the music I’ve written, having gone through these last couple of years, which afforded a lot of change. I just want to get this music documented, get it played. It’s just an honest representation.”
Though only Cassity fully knows the distance between how she sounds on the recording and how she can play at her peak, the saxophonist acquits herself handsomely throughout. The bebop influences she brings to the opening “Whimsy,” the easy strut and swagger she conveys on “North Street,” the soaring lines she launches on “Road to Dukhan” and the fervency of her expression on “Surrender” — all original compositions — attest to the eloquence and range of her art.
Then there’s the title track, its relentlessly surging rhythms and triumphant spirit embodying Cassity’s view of the term “Fearless.”
Or, as Cassity puts it in her album’s liner notes, “There is freedom in fearlessness, but fearlessness does not come freely. Through trials and tribulations, it takes faith, forbearance and wisdom to see things through. In this context, the title ‘Fearless’ doesn’t deny the existence of fear but focuses on the strength to follow a path despite fear.”
Cassity clearly has had quite a few lessons in fear during the past year, thinking it was entirely possible that this album might be her last. She was contemplating other careers she might pursue when her fingers eventually no longer worked.
Adding to the stress was caring for a son who’s now 3 years old. Cassity’s mother came to Chicago to help, and husband Johnson’s parents live nearby, meaning the couple benefited from invaluable support through this trial. Together, they persevered.
“I think a lot of it was coordinating and figuring who was doing what and when and how,” says pianist Johnson. “And making sure that the music always sounded great, that it didn’t suffer at any time.
“A lot of people, when they get into a situation, the music suffers. For me, that was one of the things that can’t happen.
“I won’t say it wasn’t a struggle.”
Yet, as Johnson observes, the music shows no obvious concessions, with Cassity even achieving quite a high-velocity burn on the final track, Johnson’s “Last Minute.”
“I wasn’t happy with everything, but 90% of it came out the way I wanted it to,” says Cassity.
There’s also an elegiac facet to the album, in that two tracks represent Cassity’s homage to widely admired jazz musicians who were her friends but are no longer with us: “Ballad for Roy,” a salute to trumpeter Roy Hargrove (who died in 2018 at age 49) and “Not a Samba,” for trumpeter Claudio Roditi (who died in January at age 73).
The journey to this point in Cassity’s life has been quite circuitous. Born in Iowa City in 1978, she lived in 12 other states throughout grade school; attended high school and two years of college in Oklahoma; earned her undergraduate degree at the New School in New York in 2005 and a master’s degree in jazz studies from the Juilliard School in 2007; and was based in Doha, Qatar, with Johnson from 2015 until 2017, when she and Johnson (who married in 2016) moved to the Chicago area.
“Chicago has been amazing — for me, it’s been a blessing,” says Cassity, who lives with her husband and son in a suburb. “To see older musicians mentoring young musicians, and to see the community here, where it’s not so competitive. I can be friends with other saxophone players, because we’re not trying to have the same thing.
“Where we live, I’m around a lot of nature. To be around nature, to watch my son grow up in a good environment, it’s very healing. New York was great. I don’t mean it was bad for me. It just was a lot of intensity all the time.”
For Cassity, the upcoming Showcase engagement will represent a milestone.
“It’s going to be a huge relief, because this music has been kind of pent up within me for the last two or three years,” says Cassity, whose doctors tell her she should have full lung capacity back by January. “The situation is finally resolving itself, and I’m moving into a new direction.”
How have the struggles of the past year changed her?
“I guess I feel like it aged me somewhat,” says Cassity, 42. “I used to be a runner. I used to run 4 or 5 miles a day. I don’t do that anymore, because my joints can’t really handle that.”
Then she added, in an email, “Apart from not being able to run like I used to, it has made me value life more, shown me that I am much more — and life is much larger — than music, and given me a higher level of positivity and faith that I wouldn’t have found otherwise.”
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