Like so many vocal greats, Lizz Wright began her singing in the church. For her it was a small church in Hahira, Georgia where her father served as musical director and where she soaked up the sounds of songs of faith. She was also surrounded by varied types of secular music at home especially jazz and soul. Wright moved to Atlanta in the late 90s to attend Georgia State University and began singing mostly jazz, both solo and as part of the popular local group In The Spirit. She made a name for herself in other parts of the country in 2002 as part of a touring concert tribute to Billy Holiday, where her poised, emotive performance stole the show.
A year later Wright was signed by Verve Records and worked with legendary jazz producer Tommy LiPuma on her debut album, Salt. It topped the contemporary jazz charts and became one of the most acclaimed albums of 2003, mixing standards with new material and styles ranging from Gospel to Soul to Jazz to Blues with ease. And her clear, deep voice and mature phrasing certainly belied her age (then 23).
Wright's quick ascent and her appeal as a poised young singer with an adult audience and sense of music history in her work drew comparisons (sometimes bordering on an unfair "lumping together") with Norah Jones. But while both were straddling multiple musical genres and creating relatively mellow, appealing music, it cheapened the individual talent and vision of each to label them together as part of a neo-pop "flavor of the week" fad. In many ways they were each the opposite of a fad. Whereever popular music has wandered decade after decade, it ultimately comes back to the notion of melodic, well written songs, acoustic arrangements and talented, emotive singers. And in this decade a generation of listeners who have been through twenty years of having questionable songwriting and an abundance of electronics thrown at them chose instead to embrace the simplicity and beauty of well written, well performed popular music brought to them by performers such as Jones and Wright.
Following their initial successes, each of Jones and Wright went a different direction in her sophomore disc. Jones followed up her mega-smash Come Away with Me with Sunrise, an album that moved slightly away from the acoustic jazz leanings of its predecessor and toward a more folk-influenced sound. Similarly, Wright's Dreaming Wide Awake moves toward a guitar-based folk that may be a bit of a surprise to those looking for Salt Volume II. However, while Jones' Sunrise explored the rural, country side of folk, Dreaming covers a more sophisticated brand of pop/folk, having more in common with 70s singer/songwriters like Joni Mitchell than bluegrass legends like Dolly Parton (with whom Jones duetted on Sunrise).
Working with producer Craig Street (Cassandra Wilson, KD Lang, Norah Jones) on Dreaming, Wright again shows herself to be a strong interpreter of varied material. Her cover of the standard "I'm Confessin'" is beautiful in its sultry simplicity. She also provides interesting, acoustic interpretations of the often schmaltzy "A Taste of Honey," 60's Cali pop hit "Get Together" and Neil Young's "Old Man," but they are not the album's high points. Dreaming is at its best on the original material written by Wright and her cohorts Jesse Harris and Marc Anthony Thompson. These songs - especially the mesmerizing title cut, "Hit The Ground," "Chasing Strange," and "Without You," - are tailor-made for Wright's smoky, deep voice, and she makes each sound like an instant pop classic. And producer Street is wise enough to mostly stay out of the way, letting Wright's voice carry the day above his sparse arrangements, but also adding wonderful little touches here and there (bongos in "Chasing Strange," an organ solo on "When I Close My Eyes," a vibe backdrop on "I'm Confessin'") that add nicely to the overall package.
Lizz Wright demonstrates on Dreaming Wide Awake that she has the interpretive skills to become a premier popular song stylist, making a valid career covering standards and lost classics. However, she's too good a songwriter with too much musical versatility to simply become a modern day Linda Ronstadt. Her work on Dreaming Wide Awake reaffirms that she is a complete artist who has both talent and musical instincts well beyond her young age, and one whom I hope will continue to stretch her boundaries in the years to come. I believe she will and that twenty years from now we will be talking about Lizz Wright as one of the great popular singers of her generation.
By Chris Rizik