Although Lizz Wright’s audience remembers the young contralto who debuted as a jazz-singer-to-watch in 2002, Wright wants to be clear she’s taking a “folk direction.” She’s always moved easily into new styles-wearing each song like a second skin and commanding the lyrics with opera-trained confidence and scarce embellishment. “[I’ve learned] to let the music breathe, to let it sway. It doesn’t need to go forward,” says Wright, in the midst of a short respite at her Seattle home before she resumes touring. “There are waves in the ocean. It goes back and forth.”
A minister’s daughter who grew up in Georgia singing gospel, Wright picked up jazz in her late teens, singing with pianist Kenny Banks and gospel/jazz group In The Spirit. Her big break came in 2002 at a Billie Holiday-tribute concert, followed by Salt, her Verve debut, which introduced her as a contemporary singer who could reach beyond jazz—much like her biggest influences, Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln.
For her follow-up, the languorous Dreaming Wide Awake, Wright matches original material by herself and Norah Jones-collaborator Jesse Harris with an eclectic set of new and old pop. Joe Henry’s “Stop” and the love-and-peace anthem “Get Together” join a humid cover of “A Taste of Honey” that sways like a nuptial hammock. The selections, she says, “challenged me to live up to my ideals, to say that I really believe that music is my way of exploring.”
Wright already has a dream for her next project: to spend a season in Brazil soaking up the music. “I’ve learned that it brings me joy to get inside of a culture or an idea or a story, and then deliver that in the most unlikely place, and to an audience that doesn’t expect it. I love exploring the world and giving it back to itself.”