Lizz Wright to open the Jazz Aspen June Experience
IF YOU GO …
Who: Lizz Wright
Where: Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience, Benedict Music Tent
When: Friday, June 22, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $79.95
2018 JAZZ ASPEN JUNE EXPERIENCE
Friday June 22
6 p.m. Free Lawn Party
JAS Summer Camp Students
7:30 p.m. Benedict Music Tent
Leslie Odom Jr.
Saturday June 23
6:30 p.m. Free Lawn Party
The Rad Trads
Valle Musico Quartet
8:30 p.m. Beneditct Music Tent
Lyle Lovett and his Large Band
Sunday, June 24
10 a.m. Free Lawn Party
Coal Ridge High Jazz Band
D & L
11 a.m. Benedict Music Tent
Josh Kagler and Harmonistic Praise Crusade
Saturday, June 30
8:30 p.m. Benedict Music Tent
Georgia On My Mind: A Tribute to Ray Charles
Tickets and more info: jazzaspensnowmass.org
Lizz Wright is an old friend of Jazz Aspen and a longtime favorite of Aspen audiences. The singer, who opens the Jazz Aspen June Experience today, has played the JAS Café, shared a bill with Jamie Cullum at the June festival back in 2006 and last year was a guest vocalist at Jazz Aspen’s tribute to Ella Fitzgerald at the Benedict Music Tent.
This time around, Wright is bringing a bit of home with her as the Georgia-born singer showcases her southern-rooted new album “Grace.”
Wright has continued evolving as an artist over her six albums — using her sonorous, supple voice for pop, blues, jazz and folk. She can do just about anything she wants with her instrument — can make a whisper soar.
On “Grace,” released in the fall, Wright — who these days splits her time between Chicago and rural North Carolina — looks to her southern heritage.
The album includes rustic and re-imagined takes on songs like Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights,” the traditional “The Stars Fell on Alabama” and the Bob Dylan deep cut “Every Grain of Sand” with notes of swinging gospel, throwback blues and sensuous jazz.
Wright was working on the album over the course of the 2016 presidential election. While many responded to the dawn of the Trump era with outrage, Wright instead made an uplifting, healing and faith-affirming album that found strength in the African-American musical traditions of the south.
“I felt I needed to stand deep in what I know, in my experience and sense of place with the South, to reassure my own soul and to sing what I know,” Wright said from home in Chicago during a recent tour break. “It was more focused, in a different way than my other work has been, and a more direct response to the times than my other projects had been.”
The album was produced by the acclaimed singer and songwriter Joe Henry (who will be in town next week for the Aspen Ideas Festival). At the beginning of their collaboration, Henry brought about 70 songs to Wright that touched on the themes she was looking to grapple with on “Grace.” They ended up with 10 songs on the record that also include Wright’s take on Ray Charles, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, k.d. lang and the classic “Seems I’m Never Tired of Loving You,” which was popularized by Nina Simone, whose activist artistry Wright looked to as inspiration for the record (she points to the documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” as a touchstone). The album’s one original, “All the Way Here,” opens “I’ve got something that needs saying coming over me.”
Wright bought a home and a 30-acre plot of land in the countryside of western North Carolina several years ago, following years based in New York, reconnecting with the earthy region that birthed her.
“I want to be in a place where nature is a major and direct influence,” she said.
So she’s gotten to know her neighbors and joined a tight-knit community where, as she put it, “there is no other black person for miles that I know of, and I was the only single person out there who wasn’t a widow.”
“Grace” may be the least overtly political record inspired by the 2016 election, but may also be the most timeless. While many progressive Americans have been consumed by what’s become known as Trump Derangement Syndrome, Wright weathered the dizzying storm by finding strength in song and in the embrace of that southern community.
“I don’t want to be mentally and emotionally naked in the world, where I just take whatever is put on me and wrap it around my skin,” she said. “Political and social commentary and rhetoric will move like weather, and all those shifts are part of some balance that I don’t understand. But I know who I am in it. And I just want to be responsible for that.”
In this music, she found hope and comfort.
“I can’t be anyone who plays to the script of history as it has been, or my own narrative of hurt,” she said. “I still have to yield to possibility and give it a try.”
The often-understated arrangements of these songs — like a gorgeously languid take on “Southern Nights” — along with the regional theme of the record, made Wright wonder how “Grace” would hold up in front of audiences. She’s been pleasantly surprised at how well the “Grace” material has blended in live performance with songs from her other albums.
“I thought it was going to be the kind of record I would have to campaign independently of the rest of my catalog,” she said. “But the opposite is true. It’s funny how we never really know what we’ve made until we put it on wheels and take it to people.”
So she returns to the Benedict Tent on a high note this weekend, with an acclaimed album and a world tour that’s drawn glowing reviews, opening a three-day Jazz Aspen festival that includes headliners Leslie Odom Jr. and Lyle Lovett.
Wright is touring with a three-piece backing band that includes renowned jazz players Bobby Ray Sparks on organ and Marvin Sewell on guitar.
“What I love about jazz, and why I will always have some claim on it, no matter what I do, is it’s this beautiful negotiation between structure and the communion of the present moment,” she said. “I love how these three musicians take it on.”
And she never knows exactly what she’s going to play until she gets on stage.
“I don’t complete the set list until I’ve gone through sound check and walked around for a minute,” she said. “We’re going to play the moment.”
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