Over the last five years Lizz Wright has become a widely known and respected singer in jazz circles. But I sort of resent the "jazz" bin she is often put into. That's because the very thing that makes Wright a compelling listen is her hard-to-categorize style that borrows just as liberally from the folk, gospel, and Delta blues buckets as it does from jazz, if not more so. Her deep, rich and gently seductive voice hits no red lights as she drives it across all these musical forms.
About a year ago I raved on a track off of Lizz Wright's last album Dreaming Wide Awake from 2005. The song, "Trouble," was cited as an example of Wright's burgeoning songwriting skills on an album of mostly covers. With The Orchard, Wright continues her transition from "singer" to "singer-songwriter." Her co-write credits are listed in eight of the twelve tracks.
The Orchard was originally intended by Wright to be themed around "an orchard," the orchard of her native Hahira, Georgia. As she was putting together the songs for this latest album, the theme got expanded, diluted and replaced with a mishmash of topics and styles, but centering around love and relationships. Since Ms. Wright is so adept at changing up and mixing up moods and genres, the album (like her prior two) still manages to be cohesive and focused.
That cohesiveness comes largely because in putting together the songs (mostly collaborating with Toshi Reagon), Wright steadfastly maintained her nostalgia about her youth in rural Georgia. She also took the unprecedented step of working out the songs with her band in a small club setting before going into the studio with them. Thus, despite these songs being recorded in four different parts of the country, there's a certain consistency about them.
Once again utilizing the producing services of Craig Street, the record sounds clean without weakening the rootsy feel. Most importantly, Street rightly arranges all the instrumentation around Wright's irreproachable voice. As in the fresh new spiritual "Coming Home" that opens the album, lightly accompanied by acoustic guitar, bass, organ, drums and a slithering slide lurking in the background.
"My Heart" (see the video on YouTube here) is apparently the label's choice for airplay, and a logical choice for that. It's the catchiest and most accessible of the record, but there's no loss of integrity, either. The mildly flamenco flavored rhythm is gently adorned with acoustic guitar, some organic keyboards and tight drumming.
It's hard to fault the other originals, either. There are some songs about broken relationships: the tender "Another Angel" and the more bitter "Leave Me Standing Alone." "When I Fall" is a gentle soul tune with the guitar lines evoking early Curtis Mayfield. The dreamy "Speak Your Heart" finds Wright singing quite effectively in a higher register.
"This Is" is a particularly intriguing track. It's an uncommon marriage of a bossa nova rhythm to a darker melody, but Wright and Street make it work beautifully.
The four covers are done in typically shrewd fashion by Wright. Ike Turner's "I Idolize You" has a lazy, swampy feel. "Hey Mann" from Sweet Honey In The Rock is given a majestic Nashville treatment. The CD closes with a rendition of Patsy Cline's hit "Crazy," that's made evocative by Wright's breathy delivery and a shimmering, reverberating guitar.
The most inspired cover comes from a somewhat unlikely source: Led Zeppelin. Wright made Page and Plant's "Thank You" her own with a sincere, delicate vocal performance and a chorus that just swells.
Lizz Wright's third outing doesn't represent a quantum leap from her prior album, but such a jump wasn't needed to begin with. She's already a fully formed talent who just needed to show more growth in the songwriting department. On The Orchard, the growth is clearly there. When listening to any Lizz Wright record, but especially The Orchard, it helps to listen without any preconceptions of what genre the music contained within falls under.