Lizz Wright grew up singing gospel music in the church of her minister father in south Georgia's Lowndes County. She studied voice at Georgia State University in Atlanta, at the New School in New York, and in Vancouver, Canada, turning sharply in the direction of jazz but remaining mostly on its pop edges. Though New York Times critic Ben Ratliff praised Wright's luxuriant contralto as a "classic R&B voice," he complained that "you can nearly hear the sound of milk being steamed in the background." Yet really that's just the way it ought to be — Wright's instrument is spectacular enough that it calls for a neutral setting.
Still in her twenties, Lizz Wright has been hailed in various quarters as a coming big thing. One of the masterminds of her career has been producer Craig Street, who helped turn Cassandra Wilson and Norah Jones into stars. There's a soul-folk mix in her music that has drawn comparison to Nina Simone. But for the sheer silk of Wright's lower register, and the layers of passion she reveals in the midrange as a song proceeds, Detroit's Anita Baker is probably the closest comparison. Wright expresses emotion directly, not with a jazz distance.
Like Wilson, Wright sometimes covers familiar pop and rock numbers, slowing them down to a meditative pace and exploring every aspect of the original tune. Her latest album, The Orchard, contains versions of Carole King's "I Feel the Earth Move," Tina Turner's "I Idolize You," and Patsy Cline's "Strange." She's at her best, though, when she takes on a song that begins with a simple rhythmic pattern and expands from that into some kind of romantic idea in the chorus. Wright imbues that expansion with the intensity of full-scale gospel music, scaled precisely down to chamber size, and when it works it's truly like the opening of a flower. The Orchard includes several of these tunes; Wright has had several songwriting collaborators over the years, but on the new album she worked mostly with Toshi Reagon, daughter of Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagon. Something between them clicked in a big way.
The Ark has been performing an interesting experiment lately, bringing certain strands of jazz under its roots-music umbrella. The experiment is worth watching, for none of the club's peer venues around the country is trying anything similar. For Lizz Wright, whose music demands a low-key, quiet focus, it ought to be just about a perfect place. She comes to the Ark on Wednesday, June 4.
[Review published June 2008]