Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Lizz Wright: Grounded in grace

By Shandra Hill Smith

Talking with Lizz Wright leaves you with the feeling as if you’re talking to an old friend, right there with her—in the space she’s come to make her own: a mountainside community in western North Carolina. You feel as if you’re with her on one of her typical Sunday drives or working alongside her harvesting the land.

The stories from this 36-year-old singer-songwriter draw you right in, just as much as the stories told through her music, which covers the genres of gospel, jazz, folk, pop and blues. And there’s no need to question — she definitely returns the love to her fans, many of whom, like this writer, have been following her since her debut album, “Salt.” With that release, the then 23 year old topped contemporary jazz charts. She credits Atlanta with giving her a start and helping shape her career.

That’s one of the reasons Wright returns to Atlanta this month for a one-night performance, Sunday, Feb. 28, at The Buckhead Theatre. City Winery Atlanta — which comes to Ponce City Market in May 2016 — presents its first off-site performance, an evening with the jazz and gospel singer at The Buckhead Theatre. The show kicks off at 8 p.m., with doors opening an hour earlier.

“I have to come home,” says Wright, who studied classical vocal music at Georgia State University, and is a native of Hahira, Ga., not far from Valdosta and the Georgia-Florida line. “I still have an incredible community in Atlanta. I was really nurtured by the jazz community here. They’ve been incredibly supportive.”

That support has lasted from when Wright appeared on the 2002 disc (“The Pecan Tree”) of the late pianist and composer Joe Sample to her second through fourth releases — “Dreaming Wide Awake,” “The Orchard” and “Fellowship,” and now her fifth album, “Freedom & Surrender.” Wright’s newest is with Concord Records, while her earlier releases, including with Sample, were through Verve. On “Freedom & Surrender,” she teams with four-time GRAMMY Award-winning bassist and producer Larry Klein. It’s a project that Wright fortunately managed to complete following a serious car accident.

After singing in the church, where her father, a pastor, served as musical director, Wright moved to singing classical, then jazz. She says she gets to visit her home of Hahira about two times a year, and while there she writes.

“It’s such a musical place,” says Wright. “That’s the best thing the world’s ever done for me, was taught me how rich home is. My grandmother can look at me and say one thing and it sounds like a blues lyric. The way she kind of walks, the way she shifts her weight. There’s a cadence and a story in everything she does and the way she looks.” She says she finds that to be true of other family members, including her connections to the Geechee culture.

“People don’t realize how wealthy they are in their routines, even sometimes in their kind of despair. I’m living another side of reality and I come to them and they sound like masters to me. There’s no person alive who’s not a teacher at something.”

Her 91-year-old neighbor — her favorite, she points out with warmth in her voice — is a teacher of sorts as well to Wright, the middle child to a brother and sister.

The self-proclaimed hobby homesteader has embraced her love of mountain life by making a mountainside community near Asheville her home. It’s there that she has learned from her neighbor to “wild harvest real food from the land. You can get greens you can cook, salad greens.”

Wright shares that she has an appreciation for garden food — one that developed during her childhood days in Hahira.

“One day it just hit me — I was the first generation in my family who couldn’t grow their own food.

“My father grew most of our produce all my life in the backyard. We worked. It was amazing what he grew in small spaces. I remember the kitchen floor being covered in watermelons where we could barely walk. I remember bringing yellow and red tomatoes to the church and handing them out to missionaries dressed in white. I have this very vivid memory of my father just giving away food and us just always having a lot.” Those images include moments of watching her dad cut and twist sugar cane across his leg, another example, she says, of a time of “communion being marked with food.” A time to which she wanted to return in some way.

“I’m very blessed to be in a constant state of adventure and exploration with this career and the traveling and all of that,” Wright says. “I just really wanted to figure out where I wanted my roots to be for a while. I love it because I can drive now. I’m literally into the earth. I love to drive and look around.  

“Everything is more grounded for me now.”

More info:
The Buckhead Theatre, 3110 Roswell Rd NE, Atlanta, GA 30305
Costs: $38.50 regular seating; $43.50 premier seating