Feeding the Soul
August 4, 2023 | by Richard Scheinin
Lizz Wright at SFJAZZ, September 2019 (photo by Ronald Davis)
Singer and songwriter Lizz Wright returns to SFJAZZ to open the 2023-24 Season (9/7-10). Staff writer Richard Scheinin spoke to the multifaceted artist about her life, work, and new Blues & Greens Records album Shadow.
Lizz Wright’s voice is a thing of beauty. It is a call to attention. You hear it — one word is all it takes — and you really listen.
Raised in rural Georgia, the daughter of a minister, she serves up a deep amalgam of gospel, folk, soul, and jazz. When she describes her music and its function, she uses words like “healing,” “nourishment,” and “service”: “You sing to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people — complete strangers,” she says, speaking by phone from her home in Chicago. “But for me, it’s not just a business. It’s a relationship. It’s really about communion; I find we all need the relief of music.”
When SFJAZZ decided on an opening act for its 2023-24 season, it awarded the honors to Wright, who will perform four shows (Sept. 7-10) in Miner Auditorium. Her repertoire is rich; she may offer a traditional Black spiritual or Neil Young’s “Old Man” or Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights,” which she transforms, delivering it as a slow enchantment. In San Francisco, with her simpatico band, she will preview tunes from her upcoming album, titled Shadow. Due for release next year, it runs the gamut from Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate on You” to a blues by Americana singer-songwriter Caitlin Canty (“Lost in the Valley”) to a relaxed, house-like dance number (“Sweetness”) that Wright co-composed with producer Chris Bruce and drummer Jack DeBoe.
She will release the album, her eighth, on her own Blues & Greens record label; its name is another nod toward the notion that music is nourishment, food for the soul. For Wright, that notion holds particular meaning: In 2017, with her wife Monica Haslip, a Chicago arts administrator, she opened a cafe called Carver 47 (named for George Washington Carver) and has managed it, designed its healthy, Southern-inspired cuisine, and been its chef ever since. (The “47” has twofold meaning; Carver taught at the Tuskegee Institute for 47 years, and the cafe is just off the corner of 47th and Greenwood.) She grew up cooking (and singing) with her family in Hahira, Georgia, graduated in 2009 from New York’s Natural Gourmet Institute, and seems not to think it very unusual that a globe-trotting singer should also be the chef of a neighborhood cafe. Life takes shape, she says, when you “allow the thread to reveal itself.”
The cafe is in the Little Black Pearl arts and cultural center in the Bronzeville district on Chicago’s South Side, which Haslip founded and directs. When it was forced to close for much of 2020, during the pandemic lockdown, Wright wanted to keep “seeing people, talking to people, feeding people.” She accomplished that by opening “a little mini-market out front, so people could get good coffee, local artisan foods, fresh flowers.” And when the cafe reopened in late 2020, she returned to her gig as chef. These days, when her musician friends come through Chicago — Robert Glasper, say, or Meshell Ndegeocello — she puts together a “love box” for their bands: “Different juices, chocolate chip cookies, essential oils.”
When she’s on the road, her team takes over at Carver 47. It’s a juggling act: “Google docs are my friend,” she jokes. “It’s hard. But running a restaurant has changed the way everything works — the way shows feel, the way I lean into lyrics, the very way I sing. Because I’m not just being `the artist,’ sitting at home and waiting to get on the next flight. I’m deeply tethered to a lot of people, and I feed my neighbors, and it’s like a very big garden that I’m involved with and that makes for a tremendous wealth of feeling and sentiment and compassion that I get to use on stage.”
Her music has a lived-in feeling that she once attributed to “Georgia dirt. There’s a sound, and there’s a treatment of rhythm that’s cultural.” Her voice carries an essence, a certain identifying flavor: “Just like the salt in the stew, it’s all a part of you,” she sings in “Salt,” the title track of her 2003 debut album. It’s become an anthem for Wright, now 43. She was living in and around New York when she recorded it, scuffling professionally and working in a cafe where she served up coffees to other artists who were emerging at the time, including keyboardist Glasper and the singer Bilal. In 2009, she moved to the mountains near Asheville, N.C., living “alone on 30 acres, sometimes not speaking for days.”
In 2016, she relocated to Chicago, and that’s where she recorded Shadow this past February — in the basement studio of recording engineer Ryan Freeland, well known for working with Wright’s friend Bonnie Raitt. “I was driving my truck to his studio, just a 20-minute drive — easy, not leaving my zone to get to the session,” she recalls.” It was almost “like inviting the band to my place. There was a family-like feeling, precious and intimate and I took a lot more creative risks. I’m really happy with it,” she says. “I think it may be my best work.”
She credits producer Bruce, who is also a bassist and guitarist and sometimes tours with her band. (He’s on last year’s Holding Space, a live album that captures the purity and excitement of Wright’s sound. At SFJAZZ, Wright’s band will feature the superb guitarist Marvin Sewell.) Bruce often tours with Ndegeocello and Seal and works with producers like Craig Street and Joe Henry. “He’s always someone’s right-hand guy,” says Wright, “always facilitating someone else’s vision. So I thought, 'Let’s try this with Chris alone, set him loose to explore what’s in his mind.' ”
He brought in Ndegeocello to play bass on “Sweetness.” Angelique Kidjo sings on another tune. “And there are all these beautiful layers of color and harmony and rhythm” across the 11 tracks, she says. “I have strings on several songs — an ensemble, harp, and these two beautiful, Indian classical violinists, Trina Basu and Arun Ramamurthy, whose scales and modes” accentuate the arrangement of “Lost in the Valley.” The album “feels cinematic; there’s so much color. And I’m singing all over my voice. I’m in the soft, quiet places, or maybe I’m just bellowing. It feels comfortable, all of it. I wasn’t worried about hitting certain bases. I was taking risks, but in the presence of more commitment, so it feels grounded. And my voice is more rested,” she adds, “because I wasn’t singing like crazy. I was cooking.”
A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.
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