THERE'S A new singer on the scene whose shimmering, blues-inflected sound swirls around the soul; it fills you up.
Her name is Lizz Wright.
After I slid her debut CD, Salt, into my player, all the tension of the day melted away. Wright's jazz relaxes. She gently pulls you in with her cashmere tone as folksy flourishes (acoustic guitars) and Afro-Cuban touches (sensual percussion) warm the overall sound. But Wright's music is not aural wallpaper. Her vocal style is steeped in gospel, which makes sense.
See, she's the daughter of a preacher man, a Southern gal -- born and raised in Georgia. She's also poised, striking, her approach thoughtful and full-bodied. All this at just 23.
Calling from her new apartment in Brooklyn, Wright sports a speaking voice that reveals faint traces of a Southern accent as she ends every other sentence with a mellow "uh-huh."
"It was a long process -- about a year and a half -- putting this album together," says Wright, whose debut dropped in stores May 13. "We actually recorded another album before this one, but it didn't feel right. It just didn't click."
The folks at Verve, Wright's label, were patient as she went back into the studio and refocused. Friends and illustrious producers Tommy LiPuma, Brian Blade and Jon Cowherd exposed her to various jazz, rock, blues and R&B songs -- tunes she wasn't allowed to play in her parents' home. Salt, she says, is "more of a reflection of who I am and where I am."
Wright was born in 1980 in Hahira, Ga., the youngest of three. She remembers following her father from church to church, from one revival to another as he preached. She was singing in the choir by age 6. And like numerous soul women who came before her -- Sarah Vaughan, Aretha, Betty Wright, Oleta Adams, Wright absorbed the elements of her style in church.
"It's the right place to learn about emotional impact," she says. "It's the heart hospital, you know. You have to touch people. What I learned about singing in the church has gone into what I do now."
Her pops was strict. She and her brother and sister weren't allowed to watch TV. Wright snickers at the memory.
"At the time, we thought it was mean," she says. "But it forced us to be creative. We would listen to radio programs, and I would listen to Marian McPartland's jazz program on NPR. That opened me up to the music."
At 14, she taught herself to play piano, and she regularly accompanied the choir in her father's church. As a student at Houston County High School, she participated in performing arts programs. After graduation, she moved to Atlanta to attend Georgia State University, but she completed only one year. In 1998, she moved 200 miles south to Macon and lived on her own, working menial jobs to make ends met. But she would drive several nights a week to Atlanta to sit in, or "jam," with jazz combos.
It was at a 1999 jam at a joint called Churchill Grounds that Wright was discovered and invited to join the Atlanta band In the Spirit. And it was through this association that she caught the attention of Verve, the legendary jazz label whose roster includes Diana Krall, Abbey Lincoln, Natalie Cole and others.
Shows to promote Salt are in the works, Wright says. In the past year or so, she has appeared at festivals on the East Coast and in California, garnering rave reviews.
"I travel with just a trio now," she says. "I don't like a lot of layered sound -- not yet. I want to concentrate on what I have [vocally] without all the over-instrumentation."
Wright's arrival as the "new jazz chanteuse" should give Norah Jones a run for her money. Like the celebrated (and slightly overrated) jazz-friendly crooner, Wright is a welcome breeze in a climate overheated with wannabe pop divas. But unlike Jones, Wright is more mindful of one of jazz's main ingredients: the blues. It floats through her music; and, like a real jazz vocalist, Wright is inventive with the melody. But she doesn't indulge in all the vocal gymnastics -- the elastic enunciations, the complex scats -- generally associated with jazz singers. Salt is much more of a vocal jazz record than Jones' Grammy-winning Come Away With Me, which is more of a mature pop set.
But will Wright receive the kind of overwhelming embrace from the mainstream that Jones got? I doubt it. For one thing, she is an exquisite dark-skinned beauty with a buzz cut. No revealing dresses, no expensive Toni Braxton-like weave cascading down her back. And, unlike so many of her pop sistas, she eschews empty, bitchy anthems about kicking her lying-cheating-no-good man to the curb. (Lately, those seem to be the only kind of songs coming from "sassy" young black female singers.) Instead, Wright pens and sings lyrics of spiritual strength ("Just like the salt in the stew / It's all a part of you / One thing life can't do / It can't take your song from you") and such evocative tales as Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue."
It's sad, it's pitiful, but it is the truth: Ebony-skinned women hardly get any love from the mainstream, regardless of how talented they may be. (Just pick up a copy of Essence; you'll find such stories in just about every issue.) I wish Wright the best, though. And she thanks me.
She says, "It can be really, really tricky trying to feel what people may want. I don't know. I have so much to learn. I am learning. It's all about growing."