Lizz Wright ‘Freedom and Surrender’ (Concord) 4/5

lizz-wrightVocalist Lizz Wright emerged during the early 2000s as a new singer who escaped categorisation by straddling gospel, blues, soul and jazz, all the meantime developing and nurturing her own voice. Nothing revolutionary, but quietly establishing a solid base with a series of critically well received albums and now her debut for Concord in her mid-thirties. Originally conceived of as a standards project, the album went in the diametric opposite direction and this has motivated Wright to compose some quality songs of her own. Produced by the empathetic Larry Klein who has worked with Joni Mitchell and Madeleine Peyroux among others, Lizz Wright is surrounded here by a whole host of top session musicians including bassist Dean Parks and keyboardist Billy Childs and they weave their subtle magic throughout.
In contrast with the 2010 album ‘Fellowship’ that was gospel-infused, this new recording has a classic but more contemporary soul feel with Anita Baker springing to mind at times. Wright has taken on board myriad influences from the jazz of Abbey Lincoln, to the gospel of Oleta Adams and the classic soul of Aretha Franklin while listening to Cesaria Evora hints at a more investigative musical mind. Interestingly, it is actually the sound of Al Green that is conjured up on the excellent ‘To love somebody’. Ballads are becoming a strong point of Wright’s repertoire and here she offers sublime harmonies on the quiet storm ‘Real life painting’ while the duet with guest vocalist Gregory Porter casts the latter in the role of Luther Vandross and will likely attract attention far beyond Wright’s traditional fan base. Pared down accompaniment with lovely eerie Hammond organ makes for a compelling take on Nick Drake’s ‘River Man’ and the restrained interpretation plus use of trumpet breathes new life into the piece. A moody rendition of ‘Here and now’ is where the Anita Baker comparison is at its most compelling and there is some gorgeous fender Rhodes work. Lizz Wright has sometimes been likened to a neo-Cassandra Wilson and the folk-guitar intro to ‘Somewhere down the mystic’ might hint at that and Wright has certainly taken in Wilson’s earthy approach. However, the song then turns into a gentle mid-tempo groove with Wright’s soulful alto delivery requiring little embellishment. Bookending the album are two compositions by J.D. Souther that create the framework for the double title. Only on the rocked-tinged guitar on ‘The new game’ does the instrumentation sound a little out of place and not truly complement her voice. Otherwise, a fine recording that should add to her already burgeoning reputation.

Tim Stenhouse