Although Asheville-based vocalist and composer Lizz Wright rarely plays local shows under her own billing, she has collaborated with Free Planet Radio and performed at LEAF. In a strange twist, the rest of the world knows Wright better than much of her local community — she’s topped the Billboard contemporary jazz chart, contributed to projects of Jakob Dylan, David Sanborn, Amos Lee and Meshell Ndegeocello, among others. She’s been covered by NPR, New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Her current tour takes her across the U.S. and Western Europe.
Wright absolutely deserves local star status. Her new album and fifth offering, Freedom and Surrender, builds on the musician’s foundation in jazz and gospel. But from the funk-infused and syncopated opening of “Freedom,” it’s apparent that Wright is using her full sonic tool box. That lead track feels like a contemporary answer to the ’60s-era rallying cry for peace. “We lost our water from hurt and greed, but I can cry you a river of struggle and need. Call again and I’ll answer,” she sings, her voice rich and smooth. “Who’s’ gonna stand up with you? I will.”
Although the album moves through various musical genres — the sultry lilt of “The Game,” the breathless slow dance of “Right Where You Are,” the aching, gospel-infused cover of The Bee Gee’s “To Love Somebody”; “You,” which whips and strikes, snake-like, as cool as it is sultry — every song is ultimately about Wright’s voice. As well-matched and impeccable as the musicianship is on each track, the vocalist could just as well sing a cappella. Her vocal is so full of emotion, expression and honest reaction to the song that it’s less like she’s singing and more like she’s embodying the music.
“Lean In,” crisp, breezy and built on a deep groove, juxtaposes snapping percussion and R&B baselines with Wright’s wistful and velvety voice. The nocturne throbs with longing while still exuding style and polish. A cover of Nick Drake’s “River Man” is similarly dark, its beat a languid sway, but the sexiness is replaced with a charged and dreamy sense of mystery.
“Somewhere Down the Mystic,” another standout track, shows Wright’s comfort in blues and world-music realms. While the song is neither, exactly, it uses those textured to tell a story and sets a mood. The music, layered and orchestral with huge, percussive breaks, is a kind of stage on which Wright’s voice performs an eloquent modern dance. Her lower register is resonate and every bit as emotive as her higher notes.
The album’s 13 tracks, as the title suggests, are bookended by Freedom in the beginning and Surrender at the end. That final offering is just as important, just as unhurried and carefully constructed, as the first song. “How much can you stand, knowing all you know and still waiting to take the hand that’s been holding you for so long,” Wright sings. It’s a gorgeously fervent song, and nods to the wrenching soul of Otis Redding and his contemporaries. But unlike Redding, Wright’s voice never breaks. There’s no anguish, no tearing at clothes or falling to knees. Instead, she only seems to rise and gain strength and cast a kind of glowing light through the song’s organ runs and snare hits.
Wright creates profound music and then holds space within it, equal parts a performer of the songs and an usher of their vivacity.
Just listening to Freedom and Surrender is a transformative experience. Here’s hoping Lizz Wright brings the live performance to a local stage sooner rather than later.