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Lizz Wright: Freedom and Surrender
by George Graham
(Concord Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/30/2015)
The ranks of the chanteuse style of women singers continues to grow in the more than a decade since Norah Jones made the style popular. The genre now runs from country-influenced to mellow rock, to soul and even some Gospel and folk. This week we have the latest recording by a versatile vocalist whose background helped shape her sound. It’s Lizz Wright, and her new album is called Freedom & Surrender,
Lizz Wright is the daughter of a minister and grew up in Georgia. According to one bio, she was not allowed to listen to anything but Gospel music growing up as a child. But she was heavily involved with church choral music, receiving awards. For college, she went to Georgia State University in Atlanta to study vocal performance. Her music naturally gravitated toward the Gospel-influenced sound. In the year 2000, she became a Gospel vocal quartet called In the Spirit. She released her own debut album, Sand in 2003, which did well, reaching near the top of the Billboard so-called “contemporary jazz”charts. After hearing some of the folk-influenced women vocalists who were part of that wave, she went for a mostly folky sound on her next album Dreaming Wide Awake which we reviewed on this series back in 2005. She continued recording, but took some time out from music for other interests, including culinary school before her last album called Fellowship, from 2010, which put her back in the Gospel-influenced mode.
Now she is out with Freedom & Surrender, which is rather wide-ranging in its sources of inspiration. The album is mainly original music which she did collaborating with other songwriters, including Jesse Harris with whom she had previously worked and who wrote some of Norah Jones’ hit songs. The producer was Larry Klein, who was formerly married to Joni Mitchell and produced some of her albums. Klein is known for a classy, jazz-influenced sound he often imparts to singer-songwriters. This album shares that sound, with a first-rate band and a sometimes somewhat atmospheric texture. The main players include Los Angeles first-call studio musicians including guitarist Dean Parks, and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, also Kenny Banks and Pete Kuzma on keyboards and Dan Lutz on bass. The material’s lyrical approach is mainly in the sophisticated love song direction, though there are a couple of more philosophical songs, including the first and last tracks, Freedom and Surrender, after which the album was named. She also does a couple of cover tunes from decades past by Nick Drake and the Bee Gees, giving both a very interesting spin.
But the generous hour-long-plus album gets under way with Freedom written by Toshi Reagon of the group Sweet Honey in the Rock, who are known for their protest songs. This one could be interpreted that way. It highlights the classy sound of the album, and Ms. Wright’s soulful vocals. <<>>
The first of two tunes on the album Ms. Wright wrote with Jesse Harris is called The Game. It’s a sophisticated love song that is nicely performed. <<>>
Another frequent songwriter collaborator with Ms. Wright on the album is David Batteau, who has a lengthy career as singer-songwriter in his own right. Following The Game is a song by Wright and Batteau called The New Game which takes a decidedly bluesy direction, probably the bluesiest-sounding track on the album, and one of its highlights. Ms. Wright overdubs her own background vocals. <<>>
The first of the covers is Nick Drake’s River Man one of the late British songwriter’s best. Ms. Wright and her musical colleagues bring out their jazzy side in this excellent interpretation of the song. <<>>
Perhaps as a means to get a hit single on the album, there is a vocal duet with Gregory Porter. The track Right Where You are was co-written by Ms. Wright and J.D. Souther, who was part of the 1970s Southern California mellow pop movement. The result, a sugary love song, is what you might expect, and or me, it’s the one real throwaway on the album. <<>>
The other cover song on the record is the Bee Gees’ To Love Somebody and Ms. Wright and the band give it some genuine soul and raise the song to a level well beyond the original. In addition to Ms. Wright’s outstanding lead vocal, her overdubbed backing vocals are also impressive. <<>>
Another of the more musically interesting tracks is You co-written by Ms. Wright, Robin Batteau and the album’s producer Larry Klein. It’s another of the sophisticated love songs on the album both musically and lyrically. <<>>
The CD ends with Surrender which Ms. Wright co-wrote with Toshi Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock. The first of the two songs which bookend the album and give it its title, Freedom was a kind of spiritual and freedom song. Surrender is a soulful love song, and it provides a nice closer. <<>>
Lizz Wright’s new fifth album Freedom & Surrender marks another notable milestone in the 35-year-old singer-songwriter’s career. Always an impressive vocalist, she combines soulfulness with a degree of sophistication that strikes a rather rare balance, and she is only getting better with time. The musical production on this album, headed by producer Larry Klein is outstanding, with excellent backing musicians and tasteful arrangements. The material on the album is rather diverse, with only two covers, and the rest first-rate original songs which Ms. Wright wrote in almost very case with someone else, and the varied styles of collaborators gives the album a degree of variety it might not have had with a constant composer lineup.
Our grade for sound quality is about a B, mostly because the with the top LA studio they used, should have given more clarity, especially on Ms. Wright vocals which lack warmth and sound overdriven at times. The dynamic range is also mediocre at best.
Lizz Wright fills an interesting niche – not really a regular jazz singer, a soulful vocalist but not one who serves up the standard soul sound, and not folkie-singer-songwriter. But her music encompasses all three and her new CD further underscores her appeal as a distinctive, appealing and creative artist.
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