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NEW YORK — At age 19, Lizz Wright suffered from what she calls “young singer’s syndrome.” She channeled a Thirties-style chanteuse in Atlanta’s jazz clubs, stuck to standards like “Summertime” and even added a second “z” to her name for effect. Four years and genres later, Wright, who just released her debut album, “Salt,” has ditched a singular style for an informed mix of gospel, jazz, pop and soul and will take her act to Avery Fisher Hall on Saturday, as part of the JVC Jazz Festival.
A minister’s daughter, Wright grew up in Kathleen, Ga., where she sang in the church choir. “By high school, I was putting the music for the services together and teaching Sunday school to everybody’s kids,” she says.
After a year studying opera at Georgia State and during a six-month stint as a Geico insurance agent, Wright began driving to Atlanta jazz clubs and sitting in on jam sessions. She teamed up with local band In the Spirit and quickly caught the attention of Verve Records president and chief executive Ron Goldstein, who was searching for vocal jazz artists like crossover star Diana Krall.
“I was signed really early and at first it made me insecure,” she says. “But I began to see a story in the life I lived and in the voice I had already.” For a year and a half, Wright worked with renowned producers like Tommy LiPuma, who has produced Krall and George Benson, took voice lessons and, song by song, developed her album. “It was like trying to paint or draw a picture you’re actually seeing,” she says of the process.
Wright, who is tall, slender and striking, also learned how to deal with the mounting buzz heralding her arrival on the scene. After performing at a star-studded Billie Holiday tribute last July, Los Angeles Times jazz critic Don Heckman called Wright “the real surprise of the evening.”
“The buzz is really cool,” says Wright. “But it sure was going faster than me.”
Now, at 23, Wright’s velvety voice conveys raw emotion and richness. And though she sings the gospel classic, “Walk With Me, Lord” on her album, she insists that she doesn’t work the “vocal gymnastics” of popular music. Wailing gospel and cool jazz are not her bag — at least not on their own. Instead, her album mixes covers (“Soon as I Get Home” from “The Wiz,” Nina Simone’s “End of the Line”) and original songs.
Though Wright once endured hour-long vocal exercises before stepping onto the stage, she now relies on a preconcert concoction that, like her music, is all her own.
“I’ll have a black cup of coffee, do some jumping jacks and sing.”