Jazz Singer Lizz Wright Expands Her Musical Boundaries

In the five years since Lizz Wright's last album, the gospel-themed Fellowship, the jazz vocalist's life veered in unexpected directions. Wright went through a divorce and a near-fatal car accident. She even started to question her chosen career.

"I thought for a while that I really didn't want to record and tour for a living," Wright says. "Then I figured it out a bit and couldn't wait to come back. There was so much to share from that transition alone."

As the songwriter began working on her latest release, Freedom and Surrender, she decided to blaze a new path for herself and her career. The first order of business was to change how she went about the work. Her previous label, Verve, suggested she do an album of covers that featured her alluring and enchanting vocals. "I work with people who I feel are friends," Wright says. "It wasn't out of any animosity, but I said, 'I have a relationship with both the music and the audience. I don't think either one is ready for me to be interpreting someone else's music right now. I've been away too long for that.'"

She enlisted the help of producer Larry Kline, whom she has admired for years.

"I just told him, 'I want to have a beautiful process,'" she says. "We wanted to describe the journey that love will take you on."

Wright, to her pleasant surprise, was approached by singer-songwriter J.D. Souther, who is better known for his work in the country-rock genre and his association with the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt. She traveled to Souther's farm in Nashville for a fruitful collaboration. Souther co-wrote with Wright and Kline the seductive duet "Right Where You Are," which she performs with Gregory Porter.

Wright chuckles to herself as she recalls meeting Souther for the first time.

"I didn't know what was going to happen," she says. "There was a lot of walking in without knowing for a lot of this. I appreciate the richness and vulnerability of that . . . It made me stand up straight and dig deeper into my own voice."

Wright, who began writing the album in small town in North Carolina, is a Southern woman who still feels bound to the gospel sounds she grew up with. She feels the inspiration that comes with being raised on the Lord's music, but Wright doesn't see a conflict between the secular songs she performs and the sacred sounds she was raised on. She's also not tethering herself to the conventions that come with working in the jazz arena.

"I describe myself as a singer-songwriter informed by gospel and jazz and my country roots of living," Wright says. "I see what I do as being very similar to the work of painters and sculptors. I borrow pieces of life and language. Everything is a composition. I think there's more of layering and a hybrid of styles than there is straight down the line music that is genre specific. I hope it can be experienced as art."

For example, there is her dark and lovely cover of folk singer Nick Drake's "River Man." When asked what drew her to the classic song, her excitement becomes audible.

"That song in particular was really special to me," she say. "I'm a fan. Every now and then, it's just that simple. I don't always know if my arrangement will really add something to it. Sometimes, I'm the fan who just happens to be able to sing . . . The spirit [of Nick Drake] as a writer and singer has always really moved me deeply."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil