Rising Stars [Issue
Lizz Wright is a magnificent new talent in jazz, a singer with a rich, sonorous
voice that recalls such sophisticated vocal legends as Abbey Lincoln, Donny
Hathaway, and even Leon Thomas. But as a gal growing up in Macon, Georgia, Wright
was anything but sophisticated, and she still dips into the home pond on occasion.
"I have no
accent," says Wright, "but I 'm more country than you know."
Wright's Verve debut, Salt, is a ringing declaration of soul power and jazz
intent infused with sweltering tempos, evocative interpretations and her remarkably
resonant voice. Wright creates mature original songs and offers deliciously
burnished covers of Flora Purim's "Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly," Mongo
Santamaria's "Afro Blue," and a particularly revelatory take on Gordon
Jenkin's "Goodbye." But far from a slick songstress, Wright's appeal
is her laid back southern groove. Lizz Wright is refreshingly down to earth.
"I went to see Common at BB Kings the other night," she recalls, "and
in the cab on the way back I took my feet out of my sandals and I was rubbing
them. I was using both hands, really concentrating on it. I wasn't aware that
that was awkward. But a friend of mine made me aware that 'I was real country.'
I only keep my shoes on here in New York, but I still get in trouble for taking
them off when I go home."
Salt's substance is deep: Verve Chairman Tommy LiPuma produced, bringing in
such jazz experts as drummer/producer Brian Blade, keyboardists Jon Cowherd
and Kenny Banks (Wright's Atlanta-based music director), saxophonist Chris Potter,
and percussionist Jeff Haynes. They help push Wright to surprising heights that
would be impressive for anyone, but which are simply stunning for a newcomer.
"When I am learning something I play it over and over again on disc until
it echoes back into my life and feels like a part of me," says Wright.
"One of my favorite tracks on the record is 'Goodbye.' That was so beautiful,
I just let it right in. I didn't know the song. But it opened me up to some
things I will be doing in the future."
Wright's own songs are part old school soul, part new school jazz-funk. Her
titles resemble the essential elements: "Salt," "Eternity,"
"Hmm," she ponders. "I didn't realize that, but 'Blue Rose' is
earth, 'Eternity' could be air, and there is 'Fire.'" Wow. It is weird.
I have studied the Yoruba tradition, it like Greek Mythology but African. And
in Yoruba, God is personified by certain personalities and certain gifts called
Orishas. I was studying the different characteristics of people who are water
signs and fire signs in Yoruba. My teachers never agreed on whether I was water
or fire. So they named me 'one who can transform.' It is Sheraphin. It means
passionate, burning and transforming. But I had no idea those similar ideas
came across in the songs."
Like a jazz medium, Lizz Wright is perhaps channeling powers, signs, and past
souls that even she is not aware of. Long may she run.