Tuesday, June 01, 2004

REVIEW: Lizz Wright at the Atlanta Jazz Festival

RAIN THREATENED ALL MONDAY AFTERNOON as I debated whether I would negotiate the hassle of finding Midtown parking, then walking ten blocks to Piedmont Park only for the sky to open up, drenching me en route to an outdoor concert that might never happen.

Well, I got a drenching, but it wasn't from the sky. Twenty-something up-and-coming jazz sensation Lizz Wright is a rarity in music these days. She actually sounds better live than in recording.

And that, my friends, is a very high compliment because her debut 2003 Verve release, "Salt," is rock solid - no joke. With a throaty blue alto reminiscent of Oleta Adams (and Anita Baker at times), Wright shakes her jazz/gospel seasoning into jazz standards ("Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly" and "Afro Blue") and a remake of a Broadway tune ("Soon As I Get Home"), does the hippest update of the gospel standard "Walk with Me, Lord" I could ever imagine, gets sensual and inspirational, and still manages to write five other tunes including the uplifting title track, "Salt." And as added bonus, production is provided by Brian Blade, drummer/percussionist on Norah Jones' debut project. But enough of Lizz's album.

Once we settled in a seat in the grass about 50 or so feet from the stage, the 3-piece band teased the mixed crowd numbering a couple of thousand for a 5-minute jam session of that wicked did-the-Roots-produce-that? bassline for Wright's rendition of "Walk with Me, Lord." Nodding her short-Afroed head in funky affirmation, hoop earrings dangling, Lizz followed her 100-watt smile on-stage. She may be less than five feet tall in heels, but her presence is celestial.

Walk with me, Lord. Walk with me...

Completely effortless, she puts the oo in smooth. You could not tell me in ten thousand lifetimes that I would ever be nodding my head - yes, nodding my head - to "Walk with Me, Lord" - even in Heaven. But here Heaven was, and her vocal quality was impeccable - soothing, seductive, rich, and so clear. The best way I can describe it is like a wash of blue light.

The rain played a game of hide-and-seek for before Lizz's shine burned away all of the clouds. About halfway through her hourlong set, every umbrella was down.

With such talent, it would be easy for Wright to take on the negative characteristics of divaism; yet she was so down-to-earth:

"My Daddy says I need to talk more when I'm on-stage," she laughed. "Hi, my name is Lizz Wright. I'm from Hahira, Georgia..."

Completely refreshing.

She performed most of the material from her debut album including "Open Your Eyes..." and "Salt," which had many of the incense-burners in the audience on their feet and singing along. She also worked in a couple of jazz standards for the true jazz heads, for good measure.

If she comes to your city, she is well worth the ticket price. In the meantime, the doctor's prescribing an increase of your intake of "Salt."

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