LIZ WRIGHT IN THE THICK OF IT
With her first two albums (2003`s 'Salt' and 2005`s 'Dreaming Wide Awake') having established her as one of the contemporary jazz world`s most celebrated rising stars, 28-year-old singer/songwriter Lizz Wright this month delivers arguably her most personal statement to date via the release of her largely-self-penned third LP 'The Orchard'.
While Lizz`s already-acclaimed interpretive skills continue to impress this time round through revelatory readings of songs like Ike & Tina Turner`s bluesy 'I Idolize You' and the Led Zeppelin ballad 'Thank You', the warmth and resonance of her gospel-trained contralto nevertheless shines equally brightly on intimate new compositions such as the hauntingly anthemic 'Coming Home' and catchily skipping 'My Heart'. The inspirational core of the new album interestingly being an orchard - known to minister`s daughter Lizz since childhood - in her hometown of Hahira in rural Georgia.
“Yeah, this time I did very consciously decide that I wanted to make a record about home”, begins a serene-mannered, quietly-spoken Ms. Wright over early-evening drinks in Central London`s bustling Cumberland Hotel: “With me always being so busy interpreting and telling everyone else`s story and exploring so much musically, I wanted to make sure that I kept track of where I`m from. So, with me tending to go back to Georgia every three or four months to spend time with my grandparents, I just felt this album might be a nice time to stop and visit home from a musical perspective. You know, I come from a family of gardeners - and the title 'The Orchard' was inspired by a huge, HUGE old orchard out by my grandmother`s land that just looks like it goes on forever! It`s so old, it`s usually kept so well, with just rows and rows of old trees. To me it just looks like another planet… And for some reason that image makes me think of COMMUNITY. Which in turn inspired me to make a record that was a little closer to the heart. Where I could borrow some of the warmth from my own life and sing of simpler things that are closer to me.”
With noted producer Craig Street (Cassandra Wilson; k.d. lang) having provided Lizz with a more acoustic, rootsy soul/folk feel for her 2005 second LP 'Dreaming Wide Awake', she was more than happy to use him again this time round: “The main reason I called Craig back was because we got into a process that really pushed me to grow a lot. When I first met him, it was almost like I was having a confessional to a stranger! I was like 'Man, I`ve got stuck with this jazz tag and - while I absolutely adore jazz - when I`m alone I listen more to singer/songwriters like Jeff Buckley and Damien Rice, whose songs tell a story'… And he was so excited to invite me into that world! Plus the great thing about working in the studio with Craig Street is that he sets up an environment where everyone that comes to play knows they`re not just showing up to pick up a pay cheque. They know they were asked to be there for a very special reason. And so they become very involved in how the music is arranged.”
Interestingly, before recording sessions for 'The Orchard' began, now-New-York-based Lizz actually debuted its songs with a series of low-key live sets at the small East Village club Banjo Jim`s: “With me not having performed in a tiny, tiny club since I was maybe 19, it was so nice to be in that really intimate environment again! Every night the musicians and I were approaching things a little bit differently, which made the songs interactive from the very beginning. While the fact people were like only a couple of feet away from me gave the songs an intimacy and a gravity before they`d even been recorded. Plus it was very grounding for ME! It was really fun to just keep my jeans and boots on and have people like (legendary jazz-fusion saxophonist) Dave Sanborn come in, and be really shocked to see me performing in this little hole-in-the wall!”
While Lizz`s acceptance and acclaim has so far mostly emanated from today`s international jazz audience, hopes are high for 'The Orchard' to expand her following to the lucrative adult album mainstream market that`s recently seen the likes of Norah Jones/Corinne Bailey Rae/Amy Winehouse sell millions worldwide: “I know the record company hopes for that. And, because of the way I GOT to this record, I wouldn`t mind that either”, she acknowledges: ‘Because, though some of the writing is very simple and very close-to-the heart, it`s still very warm and there`s not a lot of veiled poetry. One thing I really remembered for this record is how important it is for people to actually FEEL your music. I think I am probably a part of a universal mind and voice right now that`s in the forefront of wanting to connect different cultures, different walks of life and different ideas. And, with my own musical experience being so varied, it really makes sense for me to do that through my songs.”
The album `The Orchard` is released March 31 through Verve Forecast
Words PETE LEWIS