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All That Jazz

A Young Singer Blossoms

Lizz Wright may be a product of the hip-hop generation, but her style surpasses eras.

July 19, 2002|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The buzz about Lizz Wright began darting around the jazz world a couple of years ago, emanating from her home in Atlanta, where her group, In the Spirit, was chosen the city's best jazz group in 2000.

Wright's demo tape made its way to Ron Goldstein, chairman of the Verve Music Group, who late last year signed her to the label. That's not a bad place for an artist, given that the company was once home to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, and currently boasts multimillion-seller Diana Krall.

But Wright comes from a different generation and a different genre than all of the above. Like Norah Jones, also an early twentysomething, she came to maturity at a time when mainstream jazz was primarily visiting its past and pop music was fracturing in all directions.

But that doesn't bother Wright at all. In L.A. for dates at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday, and tonight and Saturday at California Plaza, she speaks candidly about establishing her place in the music scene.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 23, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 373 words Type of Material: Correction
Verve executives--A story in Friday's Calendar on jazz singer Lizz Wright misidentified the titles held by executives at the Verve Music Group. Ron Goldstein is the company's CEO; Tommy LiPuma is its chairman.
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"I'm 22 and I know that I'm doing what people in my generation consider old music," she says. "At the same time, when I bring it to them--when I do straight-ahead stuff in clubs where all they hear is hip-hop and soul--they love it.

"I think what we have to do is believe that people still have an appetite for meaning, even though they now tend to live in a manner in which they don't feed that part of themselves.... So I don't worry about whether I'm hip enough, whether I'm urban-sounding enough."

But she also adds, with a sigh, that she can't escape the special qualities of the generation into which she was born, and the circumstances of the cultural era in which she has become a player.

"I think our generation's calling, and our plight as well," Wright says, "is to see what new combinations we can make out of what already exists. And I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with that. For me, that has meant accepting the fact that this is what's going on, and that whatever we come up with that is new will actually be a combination of what has been before. So you can definitely call us the Fusion Pack."

That said, Wright's performance at the Bowl in Wednesday's tribute to Billie Holiday nonetheless showcased her deep, resonant timbres on two Holiday classics, "I Cover the Waterfront" and "Don't Explain." Slender and dark-eyed, with a radiant sense of self-confidence, she sings with an articulate maturity that surpasses her youth.

Wright is featured on Joe Sample's new recording, "The Pecan Tree," singing a pair of mainstream originals by the pianist. Her own maiden effort, scheduled to be released early next year, will take a considerably different tack.

"It's very hard for me to describe what it will be in its totality," she says. "I'll be doing several original tunes--some with a kind of folk or a gospel feeling, some could cross over into a pop sort of thing. There'll be a few covers--Nina Simone's 'End of the Line' and 'Soon as I Get Home' from 'The Wiz.' I'm thinking about doing a Sting cover because I just want the man to know that I really like some of the things he's done in his career. I'll probably do Chick Corea's 'Open Your Eyes You Can Fly,' and I really want to do 'Afro Blue,' though there probably won't be space to get it on the album."

Wright is correct about the difficulties of description; that's a lineup of tunes that would have trouble fitting into any single musical category. And, in one sense, it suggests a similarity with Jones, who debuted with an enormously successful, but not particularly jazzy, album on Blue Note--a jazz label.

In fact, Wright recalls with a laugh the reaction she experienced when Tommy LiPuma, Verve president and a veteran producer, first heard her demo.

"He listened, looked at me, and said, 'You're not a jazz singer.' Then I started listening to my music again, and listening to what he very explicitly described as the definition of jazz singing, and I thought, 'You know what? He's right.' And it's a good thing."

Of course, given Jones' success, both LiPuma and Goldstein would be delighted if Wright's still-unrecorded debut album--which LiPuma will produce--were to burst through the usual genre boundaries on its way to platinum success. And Goldstein is a believer, describing Wright as "the full package ... great voice, charismatic stage presence, and poise way beyond her years."

"Look," says Wright, "I know that my album is not going to be predictable until it's recorded, and we all can say, 'Oh, OK, that's what this is.' I also know that I'm a part of more than just a jazz audience. I'm a part of an underground neo-soul scene that's been taking place in the Southeast around Atlanta, where I live. I love drum and bass, I love '70s music and I love jazz. In fact, I loved jazz even before I knew what it was, or what the word meant, because it was a music that excited me....For me, jazz is the music of life; it's what's going on your life and your soul right now."

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