Lizz Wright – Amazing Grace
Despite its imposing name, the Rockwood Music Hall is small — so small that it’s easily overlooked in the rush of nightlife on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. On this particular Thursday in May, print reporters and network TV talent scouts fill the room from the front window to the bar and the red brick walls, spilling out onto Allen Street. All are whooping and cheering, the ones who haven’t found a seat making a racket with the rest, and there’s applause from those not holding drinks.
In the spotlight, between the piano and the edge of the tiny stage, Lizz Wright smiles perfectly.
It’s the kind of smile that suggests both self-effacement and an awareness of her strength. At first she seems shy: head down, eyes slightly, lightly closed. But then she raises her gaze, and that modest look takes on a kind of authority. The energy shifts — away from the press who had granted this new artist an hour of their time, and into the body and presence of a singer who, with one song, has taken control of them all.
Dressed casually in jeans, her hair cut skull-short, two long earrings dangling low serving as her only fashion affectation, Wright could easily have used this moment to assume her throne as the new diva queen — the latest in a succession tracing through Cassandra Wilson to Roberta Flack, and further back to Nina Simone, and further still to Abbey Lincoln, each a sorceress working magic in tones of smoke and gold. Wright had staked her claim in the opening number, a version of “A Taste Of Honey” that had finally freed the tune from Herb Alpert’s brassy grasp and recast it in sensuous mystery.
Singing, Wright stood immobile before the microphone. As the band played — Earl Harvin hand-tapping a muffled tread on his drums, standup bassist Mark Peterson tolling the root of each chord like a funeral bell, guitarist Marvin Sewell summoning slow, ghostly notes from some deep field of acoustic blues — she sang, as she generally does, with eyes closed. Only her arms moved, floating on the rise and fall of the melody line; when she whispered “I’ll come back for the honey and you,” her hands met and clasped over her heart. With the lyric reprise “I’ll come back,” they moved toward the room, clenching gently. And when she sang “His kiss was honey,” her right arm rose and stretched into the darkness, as if reaching for some secret place within each listener.
Throughout this performance, the audience was silent — not a glass clinked, not a syllable spoken. They held back their ovation until she had finished, and as it subsided, she took a breath, and the aura we had all seen around her dimmed. And she said:
“You know, my day has probably been as long as yours, so please forgive me if I do something crazy up here.”
There were nods throughout the room. It’s subtle, but now the editors and writers, having been conquered, seemed grateful to be trusted with her confidences.
She was quiet for a second, thinking. Then, stretching her wings a bit more, like a bird testing her new power of elevation, she mused a little more.
“I think,” she said, “that even if we’re not all recording artists, we should all sing at the end of the day. We all work so hard…we all deserve to take a little break now and then.”
And for a minute or so she was a kid again, as if back home in Georgia, sharing her thoughts, recounting her day. Of course, this had been no ordinary day for Wright: From early in the morning she had been posing for photos, talking into microphones, rushing around town, grabbing bites on the run. With the release on June 14 of her second Verve Records album, Dreaming Wide Awake, the pace of her life has picked up to the point that, when not lost in a song, she feels almost like an observer, watching somebody else being whisked toward something more enduring than stardom.
It’s not as though all this is a complete surprise. In July 2002, as an unknown from Atlanta booked alongside far more established artists, Wright nearly stole the show at a pair of Billie Holiday tributes, in Chicago and Los Angeles. The jazz community stirred, its appetite whetted for the release of her debut album, Salt, in May 2003. Reviews were positive, and sales were strong enough (just over 100,000 to date) to lift it to #2 on the Billboard contemporary jazz charts.
But that was just the warm-up. Between Salt and her new album, Wright experienced an epiphany. Everything about her performance on Dreaming Wide Awake — her writing, her selection of songs to cover, her musical range, her use of musicians such as Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz to add their touches to the basic tracks, and above all her suddenly understated and intimate delivery — expanded far past her initial manifestation as a gifted but fairly traditional song stylist.
Much of this has to do with how these past few years have treated Wright — how much further into the world she’s come, how the people she’s met have affected her, how her thoughts about herself have evolved. Dreaming Wide Awake testifies to her unwillingness to conform to expectations, and to her ability to make the right choices. The past is still present in this music, but it’s a new past, if you will, found in songs that had gone unheard, in places yet to be visited or imagined, back when she was growing up in a more insular place.
But you can hear that world in Dreaming Wide Awake too. Its sound, in large part the handiwork of producer Craig Street, is like mist drifting over cold and stony ground. Much of its atmosphere is dreamy; even the silences between notes echo gently. What makes it work is its connection to something firmer in her soul — something put there by the church, by her father’s ministry, by her baptism as the gospel is sung at the water’s edge, and by the blues, though it would take years before she could admit to that darker presence.
“Craig laughed at me when I told him I didn’t like the blues. I thought it was too sad. And he was like, ‘What do you mean? You are the blues. That’s your life. How can you not like something that’s you?'”
Wright smiles at this exchange — one of many that she and Street shared as they were getting to know each other. It’s midday, seven or eight hours before that first tune at the Rockwood. Here, inside a cafe called the Pink Pony, there’s a Parisian bohemian vibe: tall ceilings, jumbles of books on shelves, a single sunflower, in a tiny glass vase, on each table. A jukebox plays some Piaf; another platter drops, and it’s Patsy Cline. Between photos of forgotten celebrities are enigmatic quotes from poet and painter Rene Ricard, scrawled against the ochre walls; Wright sits before his plea, “Please hold me in the forgotten way.”