An Unusual Voice: Lizz Wright, The Orchard

By Daniel Garrett

Lizz Wright, The Orchard
Produced by Craig Street
Verve, 2008

Lizz Wright’s first two recordings—Salt and Dreaming Wide Awake—were two introductions to her impressive, rich talent and they were also proofs of mastery: on Salt Lizz Wright performed songs by Chick Corea (“Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly”), Mongo Santamaria and Oscar Brown Jr. (“Afro Blue”), Charlie Smalls (“Soon as I Get Home”), and even Rachmaninov (“Vocalise”); and on Dreaming Wide Awake she performed compositions by Joe Henry (“Stop”), Neil Young (“Old Man”), Ella Jenkins (“Wake Up, Little Sparrow”), Marc Anthony Thompson (“Chasing Strange”), and “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You)” by Doc Daugherty, Al J. Neiburg, and Ellis Reynolds; and on each album she did some of her own compositions. Having summoned tradition with intelligence and force, she is, for the most part—though not entirely—stepping away from it with her new album The Orchard, which contains a group of songs she had a strong hand in writing. Yet, Lizz Wright’s voice—a large, contralto sound, often slow and heavy—remains the most potent, irresistible aspect of her power as an artist.

“Coming home to your shelter, coming home where I stand,” Lizz Wright sings on the collection’s first offering—“Coming Home,” a ballad with a prominent beat, a song that seems a blend between a spiritual and rock music—and the return described in the song seems sober, and possibly saving, but not quite a joy: “I go down in your water and I won’t turn away” and “you may not understand me but I hear you so well.” There is a quicker pace in the singer’s voice in the song that follows, “My Heart,” a song about anticipating love, and anticipating trouble, before Ike Turner’s “I Idolize You” is given a blues-inflected, sultry interpretation—Wright performs “I Idolize You” with authority and soul. Unwilled love is the subject of Bernice Johnson Reagon’s “Hey Mann,” which Wright performs with superb diction (Reagon is the mother of Wright’s collaborator Toshi Reagon, the co-writer of “Coming Home” and “My Heart”). Lizz Wright lightens her voice in a song about recovering from an affair, “Another Angel,” a song she composed with Jon Leventhal. “When I Fall,” written by Wright, Toshi Reagon, and producer Craig Street, has a leisurely tempo, and something of a country sound.

A strong instrumental and vocal arrangement defines “Leave Me Standing Alone,” a rhythm-driven soul song about a relationship with bad effects, provoking the narrator to declare, “I want you to leave me standing alone.” Wright’s lead singing has force, and the composition has a chanting chorus, and guitars and drums and percussive sounds that each add something distinct. “Speak Your Heart” is by Wright with Dave Tozer, a pretty piece that asks for intimacy. A new relationship is identified with good things—such as magic, fresh beginning, sunshine, and the narrator says, “come into my life, come into me”—in “This Is.” A woman is drawn to the ocean in “Song for Mia,” an attraction to which she brings her thoughts and her troubles. Wright performs the Jimmy Page/Robert Plant tune “Thank You,” which Wright turns into a promise of love rooted in both passion and thought, one that does not entirely evade melodrama or sentimentality (the elements of jazz and rock in the song balance that). And, there is a bonus song, “Strange,” in which one lover finds someone else and the abandoned lover still cares, a song by Fred Burch and Mel Tillis. I do not think that I like the compositions on Lizz Wright’s The Orchard as much as I do those on Wright’s Salt and Dreaming Wide Awake: while being interesting, even nourishing, fruits of labor, they do not have as pleasing a shape or taste; but Wright sounds more free and Wright’s voice is as distinct as that of Anita Baker or Tracy Chapman, and is as likely to be, as theirs have been, among the defining voices of a generation.

Daniel Garrett’s commentary on Lizz Wright’s Salt and Dreaming Wide Awake appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader; and his review of the Smyrk was featured on Daniel Garrett has been a longtime resident of New York, and his work has appeared in, or been featured by, The African,, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen,, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option,, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.