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Lizz Wright: Grace
by George Graham
(Concord Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/11/2017)
The chanteuse style of vocalists continues to enjoy popularity since Norah Jones opened the door for somewhat jazzy and romantic sounding women singers some 15 years ago. And like many genres, the various artists have their own distinctive approaches, some come to it from a more traditional jazz origin, some from theater or cabaret, some from blues. This week, we have the newest album by a distinct artist in the style whose sound is a hybrid of jazz, folk, and Gospel, with some blues thrown in. It’s Lizz Wright, and her new sixth studio album is called Grace.
Lizz Wright grew up in a small town in southern Georgia, the daughter of a church pastor and the musical director. So Gospel music was an integral part of her growing up. She was serious about being a vocalist at an early age. In her high school, she was part of a choral group which won a national award. She studied voice at Georgia State University in Atlanta, and since then has studied at the New School in New York, and in Vancouver, Canada. In 2000, she became a member of an Atlanta-based Gospel quartet called Spirit and recorded with them. In 2002, she was signed to the jazz-oriented record label Verve and the following year, released her debut solo album Salt, which reached number 2 on the Billboard contemporary jazz charts.
Over her recording career she has worked with a variety of notable musicians and with producers including Larry Klein, known his his work with Joni Mitchell. The sound that resulted incorporated Ms. Wright’s Gospel background, plus the jazz influence that some of the players on the sessions brought to the table. Also, there have been several pieces whose central instrument is acoustic guitar, which evokes a folky influence.
After her 2010 album Fellowship she took something of a hiatus for other activities, including culinary school. In 2015 she returned with the album Freedom and Surrender which we featured on this review series. It consisted of mainly original material.
Now for her new record, Grace, she worked with producer Joe Henry, who is known as a rootsy singer-songwriter as well as being an eclectic producer. And this album features almost all cover songs, some going back to traditional Gospel and some from familiar sources like Bob Dylan, Allen Toussaint, and Ray Charles. Again the backing is rather eclectic, with the acoustic guitars again often giving a folky texture, but there is a Gospel chorus along with some church-like organ that can make the pop songs sound like spirituals. It’s all very well done with outstanding but frequently understated arrangements. The band on the album is more or less constant, including Kenny Banks on keyboards, who played on Ms. Wright’s last album, plus guitarists Chris Bruce and Marvin Sewell, bassist David Piltch, who comes from a jazz background, and versatile drummer Jay Bellerose. Electric guitarist Marc Ribot, known for his work on Tom Waits albums, makes a guest appearance, and there is an eight-member Gospel styled chorus, who add a righteous sound to several of the tracks. Though the instrumentation is pretty standard, the arrangements can be very distinctive.
An example of that is the opening piece called Barley, a song by an alternative group called Birds of Chicago. The piece is given a sound like an old spiritual, with the thundering bass drum percussion of Jay Bellerose. <<>>
One of Lizz Wright’s big influences was Nina Simone. The album contains a piece that had been recorded by Simone, Seems I’m Never Tired Loving You. Ms. Wright really gives it a great performance that again evokes Gospel influence combined with a soulful ballad treatment. The Gospel singers add just the right touch. <<>>
More upbeat is Singing in My Soul, a genuine Gospel song written by Thomas Dorsey and recorded by Sister Rosetta Sharpe. But Ms. Wright and the band give a swinging, bluesy spin. <<>>
The album contains a fairly familiar song, Southern Nights, written by Allen Toussaint and made into a hit by Glenn Campbell. Again, there is an imaginative approach to the song, but it’s not one of the real standout tracks. <<>>
The artist who came to pioneer the mixture of soul and Gospel was Ray Charles. Lizz Wright includes a Ray Charles song, What Would I Do Without You, which is a perfect fit for the album, and nicely served up in an upbeat setting, with the Gospel singers giving it that righteous sound. <<>>
One surprise on the album is the old Tin Pan Alley standard Stars Fell on Alabama, a ballad which is in the repertoire of just about every jazz musician. Ms. Wright’s group emphasizes the acoustic guitars, lending folky texture with Ms. Wright giving it a classic jazz torch singer’s performance. <<>>
Bob Dylan went through his religious phase, and though his songs were not really Gospel in style, it has inspired a number of performers to give some of Dylan’s songs a Gospel treatment. Ms. Wight includes Dylan’s Every Grain of Sand from Dylan’s 1981 album Shot of Love, and gives the song a deeper significance with her staid, distinguished performance. <<>>
The album ends with its only original song, All the Way Here, which Ms. Wright wrote with Maia Sharp. Perhaps appropriately the track has more of a conventional singer-songwriter direction. <<>>
Grace, the new album by vocalist Lizz Wright, is one of her best yet, in a 14-year recording career. Producer Joe Henry and Ms. Wright went over some 70 cover songs before selecting the nine included, plus the original. Ms. Wright’s vocals are a wonderful blend of the African-American Gospel influence she grew up with with her warm almost honey-like jazz texture. The arrangements though deceptively simple always bring in some interesting sonic textures, thanks to the first-rate musicianship by the studio players, and the nicely arranged eight-member Gospel chorus sounds soulful and yet never over-the-top.
Our sound quality grade is a close to an “A.” Ms. Wright’s vocals are nicely and warmly captured, and the eclectic arrangements, including Jay Bellerose’s deep bass drum makes the recording an impressive experience on a good sound system. And the use of ambiance is likewise well-handled. But it would have been better without the compression in the mastering process which compromised the dynamic range just to jack up the volume.
Cassandra Wilson is another artist who has won acclaim for combining eclectic arrangements of rock songs with a jazzy sensibility. Lizz Wright carries on that tradition with a good helping of her Gospel upbringing in a memorable album that you’ll want to go back to many times.
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