A review of Salt and Dreaming Wide Awake by Lizz Wright

Reviewed by Daniel Garrett

Lizz Wright, Salt and Dreaming Wide Awake

Verve, 2003

Dreaming Wide Awake
Verve, 2005

By Daniel Garrett

“My eyes burn, I have seen the glory of a brighter sun,” sings Lizz Wright. Lizz Wright’s musical recording Dreaming Wide Awake (2005), produced by Craig Street for Verve, is itself a bright light and it has become one of my favorite recordings of the last several years: the intelligence, honesty, and intimacy in Wright’s singing are what are most impressive, although I am fascinated by her understanding and presentation of musical tradition: of communal properties, of understood and accepted forms and meanings.

In an earlier recording by Lizz Wright, Salt (2003), produced by Tommy LiPuma, Brian Blade, and Jon Cowherd for Verve, Wright signaled her interest in various traditions—jazz, Broadway, and even classical: she announced herself a serious singer. In Salt’s “Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly,” a song of encouragement by the well-known jazz musician Chick Corea and Neville Porter—with the lines “see only what you want to see” and “open your eyes, you can fly” (lines that can suggest vision and adventure, or the self-delusion of a very false confidence)—Wright gives an open-hearted, fully voiced performance that is hard to turn away from. The next song, the title song “Salt,” with lines such as “How can you lose your song, when you’ve sung it so long, How can you forget your dance, when that dance is all you’ve ever had?” is an affirmation of culture, an affirmation that reminds me of Toni Morrison, who counseled women not to forget their ancient properties. “You can’t separate the two…just like the salt that’s in the stew,” sings Lizz Wright, who wrote the song “Salt,” a jazz ballad, which she sings passionately.

“Afro Blue,” a song written by Mongo Santamaria and Oscar Brown Jr., is a song made familiar by Abbey Lincoln, and it is the third song on Wright’s Salt album: with the song, its fame, and its quick piano notes and seemingly irregular drumbeats that crest with a soft cascade of cymbals, Wright seems to be identifying with the more visionary aspects of jazz. “Soon as I Get Home,” written by Charlie Smalls, one of the writers of the musical “The Wiz,” a retelling of The Wizard of Oz story, is a gesture toward Broadway and popular music. The song is about being lost and found and even refers to the Wiz, and what he might offer. It has a delicate but firmly structured arrangement and a performance that is warm and intense. “Walk with Me, Lord” is a traditional spiritual—an expression of spirit, a calling to the narrator’s god—and Wright sings it in a full, dark voice. Wright handles the song easily, with tenderness and strength, so easily that one imagines it is no challenge whatever. In the first four or five songs on Salt, Lizz Wright establishes her talent, her knowledge, and her right to our attention. She knows the traditions that exist, and can master them—and so the question is, Will she be emboldened by them, or trapped by them? Will she add to them, or simply keep them alive?

In her own song “Eternity,” the sixth song on Salt, Wright uses, in her lyrics, nature imagery (imagery that is matched by the photographs taken of her for the recording’s jacket by Bill Phelps: similar photographs by Phelps accompany Wright’s Dreaming Wide Awake). In “Eternity” the singer asks, “What is the gift that you possess? What is this strange happiness?” and states, “If the answer is you, I’ll have to have you for eternity.” She follows that with a carefully handled civil song of parting written by Gordon Jenkins called “Goodbye,” before giving us a combination “Vocalise/End of the Line” by Rachmaninov, and John Edmonson and Cynthia Medley: it begins with humming, and ends with sung lyrics about a relationship’s end—it’s a sad song—and it has violas and cellos. (Elsewhere, John’s last name is spelled Edmondson.)

Another one of Wright’s original songs follows, “Fire,” and it too has elemental imagery; and it is about love and what people give each other. “Blue Rose,” by Wright with Kenny Banks, and featuring an acoustic guitar, seems to compare a woman to a morning glory lost in a tangle of vine. A song about being led by faith, grace, and love is Brian Blade’s “Lead the Way,” and Wright’s directness and the spareness of the arrangement diffuses the sanctimony, and this surprisingly emerges as one of the set’s stronger songs. Wright closes with her own “Silence,” which almost seems a modern hymn, and is sung in a strong declamatory tone—and there is a short, mysterious line “silence is a song.”

Lizz Wright’s Salt is a collection made with care—it is elegant and intelligent, qualities that I always want, always relish, and am glad to find in the recording, even as I wonder about the limits of tradition.

With her Dreaming Wide Awake recording, Lizz Wright, contemplative, expressive, intense, again explores tradition, while also performing some new songs, but here the tradition she explores is a little different. Text and interpretation seem important to the productions of Craig Street, who has worked with Cassandra Wilson and K.D. Lang and here works with Lizz Wright. (He may have a slightly heavy hand.)

The mood for the album is set with the song “A Taste of Honey,” by Ric Marlow and Bobby Scott—melancholy, melodic; and then there is Joe Henry’s “Stop,” a song of independence, a response to censure, an affirmation of nature. (Another version of the song has been sung by Madonna Ciccone. “Tell me everything I’m not, but don’t tell me to stop,” are two short lines among the repeated lyrics. I wish that lyric sheets, not only composer listings, had been provided in the compact disc packages for bothSalt and Dreaming Wide Awake: for confirmation, for pleasure.) “Hit the Ground,” for which Lizz Wright shares writing credits with Jesse Harris and Toshi Reagon seems a moody hymn, words of advice and friendship with a touch of the sensual, a kind of bluesy folk ballad about perseverance and love. With Wright’s voice low, slow, careful, and intimate, she explores “When I Close My Eyes,” a song of memory of something that did not work out, the story told indirectly in the lyrics (the song is written by Marc Anthony Thompson, Dougie Bowne, Yuka Honda). “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You)” is a standard, a love song, by Doc Daugherty, Al J. Neiburg, and Ellis Reynolds, and through it Wright conveys an intimacy that stirs one’s memories and hopes: it is very, very charming.

Lizz Wright’s interpretation of Neil Young’s “Old Man,” originally from his 1972 Harvest album, is one I’m ambivalent about. “Old man take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you. I need someone to love me the whole day through. Take one look in my eyes and you can tell that’s true,” are some of the lyrics. (Would Wright actually call someone “old man” to his face?) The song may be too famous, and also too much like the kind of thing producer Craig Street would do with Cassandra Wilson. Wright may be too young for a nostalgia involving folk-rock songwriters whose greatest fame occurred in the 1970s. I would like to know if she picked this song or if Street did. Wright adds something to the song—or some things (with her, it is thoughtful, womanly, soulful), and though I have listened to Wright’s version many times, I am never entirely comfortable with it—I still have all those other, previous associations in my head as I listen. On the other hand, Ella Jenkins’s “Wake Up, Little Sparrow” has a wonderful simplicity and fits with Wright’s established interest in nature. “Chasing Strange,” by Marc Anthony Thompson, is about disappointment, sacrifice, and unpredictability in love, and the song is open, direct, allusive, with a hauntingly mournful sound, and it might be my favorite song on Dreaming Wide Awake. Chester Powers’s song “Get Together” shares, for me, the same problem as Neil Young’s “Old Man.” The lyrics—“Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now”—are blunt, with a bluntness that is nearly repellent. (Were these words ever sincere, or were they too sincere?) Wright does the song well, but it’s too familiar—and it has a sentimentality that is in the words, in one’s own memory, and in past performances. (There remains something awkward about it.) Even more, I find it hard to believe that this is Wright’s nostalgia and not Street’s taste. I do not like the sense that Wright might get lost in tradition, especially if it is someone else’s.

The uptempo “Trouble,” written by Lizz Wright and Carlos Henderson, has a stronger rhythm, is livelier, than “Get Together.” And, the title song “Dreaming Wide Awake,” written by Wright alone, the second to last song before the collection’s end, is a somewhat mystical mood piece—followed by Jesse Harris’s “Without You,” in which Wright reaches out again for love. “My eyes burn, I have seen the glory of a brighter sun,” Wright sings in “Dreaming Wide Awake,” with its limpid beginning. Lizz Wright sings, “Who are you, stranger, to come here, and answer all my prayers?” and one might ask the same thing of her: and I imagine she may spend her entire career answering the question. It is something to look forward to.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in or on AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, IdentityTheory.com, Offscreen.com, PopMatters.com, Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today.