Lizz Wright isn’t the first jazz singer to embrace gospel, blues, folk, and rock, nor is she the first jazz singer to tell interviewers that she’s not really a jazz singer. In fact, the phenomenal success of Norah Jones’ debut, Come Away With Me, shows thatmild heterodoxy has become, if not conventional, at least lucrative. But before Jones sold more than 9 million records, Nina Simone (who covered the Beatles and Bob Dylan) and Cassandra Wilson (who covered Hank Williams, Neil Young, and U2) had already proved that crossing over didn’t have to mean selling out.
Even if she’s not exactly revolutionizing jazz vocals, Wright is by no means an industry-issued knockoff, and Dreaming Wide Awake, her second album, reveals a singer of exceptional promise. Her openness to other genres seems less like a marketing ploy than an extension of her life history. The 25-year-old Georgia native grew up singing gospel and playing piano in her parents’ rural Pentecostal church and went on to study jazz and opera at Georgia State University in Atlanta. She sang with a local jazz ensemble for almost three years before signing with Verve. Her 2003 debut, Salt, was a pleasant, if somewhat bland, contemporary-jazz affair that garnered respectable sales and critical acclaim, but it didn’t reflect her true eclecticism. Although Wright revered the great ladies of jazz — especially Simone, Wilson, Billie Holiday, and Abbey Lincoln — she also loved offbeat singer/songwriters such as Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley, Meshell Ndegéocello, and Fiona Apple, whose influences weren’t apparent in her music until she met producer Craig Street.
From a cynic’s perspective, Street seems like a painfully obvious choice to produce Wright’s sophomore outing: Not only has he worked with Wilson and Ndegéocello, but he also produced Jones’s multiplatinum debut. If Wright hoped to escape being pigeonholed as the Norah du jour, hiring Street wasn’t the best way to go about it. One spin of Dreaming, however, proves that any other decision would have been perverse. Street has an uncanny gift for showcasing great female vocalists, especially those who prefer nuance and restraint over flashy acrobatics and over-the-top emoting, and his trademark atmospherics and spectral guitar effects are a pleasure in their own right. No mere knob-twiddler, Street deserves much of the credit for the CD’s aesthetic force. After getting to know Wright and discussing her musical goals, he recommended songs for her to cover, introduced her to like-minded collaborators (including Marc Anthony Thompson, better known as Chocolate Genius; Toshi Reagon; and Norah’s main man, Jesse Harris), and assembled a dream band to back her up.
The result is a record that sounds spare and warm, meditative and spontaneous. All of the elements — Wright’s singing, the musicians’ performances, the choice of material and co-writers, the production values — combine to create a mysterious languor, a kind of midsummer night’s dream. Wright’s sultry, elegant voice has the timbre of a cello and a subtle vibrato that lends resonance to her phrasing without overpowering it. The material, a mix of covers, collaborations, and Wright originals, is uniformly mellow but never tedious. The pop chestnut “A Taste of Honey” is rejuvenated by Wright’s sumptuous contralto and an eerie Delta-blues arrangement featuring jazz-guitar visionary Bill Frisell. Pared down to its elements, Neil Young’s “Old Man” is a beautiful bummer, and Ella Jenkins’s nursery lullaby “Wake Up, Little Sparrow,” radiates with mystery and melancholy. Wright’s own contributions, if not quite as compelling as the older songs, are nevertheless lovely, a promise that her best work is ahead of her. Long after the last new Norah has come and gone, Wright should still be around.