22.01. – Happy Birthday !!! ”Music lives in that place where anything can be picked up. It can become a different statement in someone else’s hands than in my hands. The fact that it can be passed from hand to hand is something beautiful, almost spiritual. It means different things in different places, and I approached this record as if there is no history. I was just a voice, and I loved it.” – Lizz Wright.
With her latest album, Dreaming Wide Awake, Lizz has simultaneously delivered a record with “no history” and yet one that embraces the history of jazz, gospel, rhythm- and-blues and the singer-songwriter tradition. It is a record where Lizz Wright’s voice and vision seamlessly marry songs once performed by Neil Young, Fats Waller, The Beatles, Madonna and Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass to self-penned originals and her collaborations with some of today’s most gifted songwriters to create one of the most strikingly original albums of the year.
For the new album, Lizz chose to work with Craig Street, a producer famous for his work with a broad palette of singers (Cassandra Wilson, k.d. lang, Me’Shell NdegéOcello) to shape an incredibly personal album that Lizz feels best reflects who she is right now: “When I first met Craig, he asked me what I liked to listen to and I said I really like stuff like Jeff Buckley, Damien Rice and Sarah McLachlan. I love songs that create moments. At the same time I had this dilemma where I’ve been trained to sing gospel, choral music and a little bit of opera and was very used to being technical. But I wanted to make the move away from those styles.”
The twelve songs that create moments on Dreaming Wide Awake range from Lizz’s self-penned title track to The Youngbloods’ Summer of Love anthem “Get Together,” from her co-writes “Hit the Ground” and “Trouble” to the 1960’s pop smash “A Taste of Honey” and from originals by Marc Anthony Thompson (a.k.a. “Chocolate Genius”) to Neil Young’s classic “Old Man.”
The middle child of a minister from rural Georgia, Lizz took the music world by storm in 2003 with breakout performances at Billie Holiday tributes in Chicago and Los Angeles and with her debut album Salt (Verve), where her rich gospel-trained contralto soared amidst a soulful R&B-meets-jazz setting. The New York Times’ Stephen Holden was moved to call her “a young singer and songwriter of astonishing maturity and poise” and write that “in her debut album and on the stage, Ms. Wright delivers spun gold . stir(ring) jazz, gospel, and rhythm-and-blues into a reflective, flowing style that elongates songs into prayerful meditations that never wander into vagueness. Pitch-perfect, with a smoky, full- bodied texture . impressive in its steadiness, control and rhythmic subtlety.”
A different sort of taxicab confession describes Lizz’s inspiration for her follow-up album Dreaming Wide Awake: “I was in a Green and White cab in Atlanta going down Peach Street Hill when I heard Sarah McLachlan’s ‘Angel.’ It was an incredible moment. I realized that was the kind of thing that I really wanted to do.” Building on, and breaking away from, the musical vocabulary she had established, Lizz reached for a new instrument – the guitar: “For Salt I had written all my songs on the piano. But when I heard this idea in my head, I grabbed the guitar, made up some chords and just kept singing;” that song became “Trouble” – the first song she learned how to play on the instrument and her first original composition for this album. “Hit the Ground,” another original heard here, was started with chords she picked up while learning to play “Amazing Grace” on the guitar, and finished in collaboration with two of today’s premier songwriters – Jesse Harris and Toshi Reagon. Lizz’s evolving sound and skills as a songwriter are marked by her move to the re-launched Verve Forecast label, an imprint focused on great music outside the jazz genre and original home to such seminal singer-songwriters as Laura Nyro, Tim Hardin, and Richie Havens.
Dreaming Wide Awake opens with acoustic guitar and understated hand drums on “A Taste of Honey;” the sixties pop staple gets a stripped-down swamp-blues treatment, recasting it miles away from its confectionary origins and giving the song a gravity heretofore not explored. One of the album’s great delights is to hear familiar songs re-born in Wright’s hands. The gentle standard “I’m Confessin” reveals a vulnerable side to Wright not seen on the last album; the nursery sing-along “Wake Up, Little Sparrow” from “The First Lady of Children’s Music” Ella Jenkins becomes a cautionary lullaby, while “Get Together” and “Old Man” are reaffirmed as being as a relevant today as they were in generations past.
Indeed, Dreaming Wide Awake seems a wholly appropriate title for an artist’s continued awakening to the many facets which make her a singular talent: “Sometimes we do things and realize the wisdom of what happened later, after doing it,” says Wright; “That’s what happened with this record. Naturally I’d wanted to take a step further or a notch up. But I’m learning that deep inside myself, beyond the echoes of other peoples’ expectations and thoughts about who I am and what I do, I really like simplicity and I am a very mellow person. This project helped me to be okay with expressing that.”