U.S. Jazz Singer-songwriter Lizz Wright on the Power of Music


Lizz Wright

Photo by Jesse Kitt

When she kicks off Jazzfest Budapest 2023, Lizz Wright will be setting an impressively high standard of musical excellence. In advance of the festival, I sat down to talk to Wright about her music, Budapest, how where she’s performing shapes her music, and jazz today.

Gracious, warm, and thoughtful in her answers to questions, Wright laughs, or rather chuckles, a lot. One of three children born to a minister and a church musical director in Georgia, Wright started young, singing gospel and playing piano in church. Jazz and blues also figured prominently in her musical education.

In 2000, she joined the vocal quartet In the Spirit. She signed to the illustrious jazz label Verve Records in 2002. She’s now seven albums into her career, with another one on the way.

Listening to Wright’s music and her rich voice, I hear smoky old-school and rhythm and blues alongside the jazz, gospel and folk.

“I’m happy that you hear all these,” she tells me. “In life, it’s impossible to divide the experiences that lead to sounds, especially as a black American. It makes sense to me that you hear all these things, and yet, when you have to sell music, it’s only then that you’ve got to be neat and tidy with your labels.”

Wright also has the ability to make covers such as the Bee Gees classic “To Love Somebody” or Ella Fitzgerald’s “The Nearness Of You” entirely her own. So much so that it’s often hard to know whether she’s singing a standard or one of her own songs.

“That’s a big compliment to me,” she says, smiling. “Because I feel the way to become a solid writer is to pay attention to how others have learned to speak. Covering songs is just a great way to study. I’m glad you can’t tell without looking. That’s super exciting to me.”

Third Time a Charm

Wright thinks this is the third time she’s played in Budapest.

“The people are surprising because they sit so politely,” she says. “They seem shy at first. But after a few songs, when I’m just digging in to the gospel blues thing, I see them recognizing something all hardworking people have in common: this prayer, this yearning, that’s universal. By the end of the show, I feel much more connected to people, in tune with them.”

Being in tune with her audience is vitally important to Wright. Her last album, the terrific “Holding Space” (2022), recorded live in Berlin, is named for a term that originated in contemporary spirituality.

According to the website Shondaland, “Holding Space” is about being empathic to other people and making time to receive what they feel the need to communicate in a supportive, non-judgmental way. It’s about allowing people the opportunity to be fully seen and heard.

The album, which includes a swampy, extended reworking of Neil Young’s classic “Old Man” with a powerful guitar solo, was, Wright explains, “spawned from the experience of realizing the role an audience plays in inspiring the sound I and my band make, and our feelings.”

For Wright, this realization comes about because of absence. “In this case, it’s about the people,” she says. “There’s this cavity in us when we remember how deeply we’ve communed, loved and grieved. It was humbling and exciting to understand that I felt that way about the audience.”

Given that “Holding Space” was recorded in Berlin and Wright is about to play in Budapest, does she change her set for European audiences?

“I’ve never been asked that before,” she says. “I have a list of songs that I’ll send to my bandmates before a tour. But I do leave myself some space to react to people and environments. In Europe, I generally find that I’m able to get away with extremely tiny, intimate songs and a very intimate delivery, but it really depends on the venue, how the space is designed and people’s energy. In the end, I’m an initiator, not an entertainer.”

A Lot of Trust

Working with a band that insists on planning and clarity from Wright but possesses “a certain freedom and authority in their position” is also important. “It took years to develop those relationships, so there’s a lot of trust there.”

When I spoke to Jazzfest Budapest organizer Attila Kleb, he was pessimistic about the state of jazz in this country, saying, “the whole genre is completely marginalized in Hungary. Only members of a small subculture go to the concerts. Jazz gets no coverage in the media and, sadly, cultural policy acts as if it doesn’t exist. And we still produce outstanding musicians.”

Is the state of jazz important to Wright?

“It’s very important. Jazz, in its nature, is of the time. It’s about how people are speaking about their lives and to one another. It’s the stone in the river and the flowing water itself, which is formless,” she explains.

“Some people are more drawn to the aspect of the river stones that give the music its structure, make it move a certain way. Others are more about what is always now, in the nuance of this moment, calling us to respond to what’s happening in the present. While I love the function jazz has played in history, I trust to be discerning and non-judgmental because jazz has to be ongoing.”

Ultimately, Wright has faith in jazz.

“I thank life for this music, this untouchable place we can’t ruin even if we try,” she says, laughing. “It reminds me of how vast and abundant life is.”

You can buy tickets for Lizz Wright’s concert via “Holding Space,” her latest album, is available on major streaming platforms.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of April 11, 2023.

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