A blues balance

2012-08-11 21:17

American songbird Lizz Wright is heading south to croon in Jozi. Percy Mabandu speaks to her about balancing an itinerant career with family life, and spiritual with secular music

Not long after she turned 19, American singer-songwriter LizzWright’s fascination with jazz took her into Atlanta’s nightlife. She started frequenting her home city’s night clubs to sit-in with local bands. It was quite a leap.

Wright (32) was literally raised singing and playing piano in the Holiness Church, a Pentecostal denomination where her father served as minister and musical director. This explains her affinity for Negro spirituals and the deep blues leanings of her music.

The songstress will headline this year’s Joy of Jazz festival in Newtown, Johannesburg.

I spoke to her on the phone from her home in North Carolina, where she spends time growing a vegetable garden and cooking for friends and family.

She answers her phone with a “hallo”, followed by a measured exhalation. I imagine she’s running in from her patch.

Wright once told an interviewer: “Sometimes it’s good to dig a hole (for plants) while thinking things over.”

She giggles when I ask her about it.

Wright has released four albums to date: Salt in 2003, Dreaming Wide Awake in 2005, The Orchard in 2008 and Fellowship in 2010. And she has worked with legends that stretch from Joe Sample and David Sanborn to Dianne Reeves and Meshell Ndegeocello.

Speaking in her distinctively calm voice, she acknowledges it’s not easy to be real. “It can be hard and unrealistic when you’re always on the road. However, my management understands that as long as I can spend two days in a week catching up in the office, I can free up time to spend at home.”
Wright seems to have been doing a balancing act between family customs and her secular musical interests since she launched her professional career. So I ask her about the potential scandal of a minister’s daughter seen singing in pubs and clubs.

To this she says: “I wasn’t worried about what people would say. I had already paid my dues to the church.”

She points to a long tradition of musicians who play in the church on Sundays and pursue their own gigs during the week. She then declares: “I’m blessed to have been received into that community of musicians.”

This awareness of the gospel tradition and a love for jazz defines her music. It’s a lush blend of spirituals and secular blues sensibilities.

And the result is a rich repertoire sung in unhurried lower registers – all packed with a low burning soulful fire that recalls a whole history of singers, from Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith to contemporaries such as Cassandra Wilson.

It’s been two years since Wright released Fellowship. However, she’s not in a hurry to release her next album.

She’s been taking cooking lessons and diversifying her musical skills. “I’m finding joy in studying music. So I’m taking percussion lessons with (the world renowned) River Guerguerian.

“I’ve always played a tambourine and stuff, now I’m excited to learn the complex sounds one can get out of a djembe drum.”

It’s no wonder she’s excited about bringing drummer Kenny Bank to Newtown. Bank played on the band Wright first worked with when she launched her career over a decade ago. He’s also minister.

» Wright performs at The Market Theatre on August 24 and August 25

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