Lizz Wright's first two Verve releases, Salt and Dreaming Wide Awake, established her as one of the jazz world's most celebrated rising stars, both an accomplished songwriter and a versatile, deeply expressive singer. On her third album The Orchard, the Georgia-bred, New York-based artist takes a substantial leap forward, transcending genre distinctions to deliver a vibrant, intensely creative milestone.
The largely self-penned The Orchard finds Wright mining her own experience to create an unmistakably personal musical statement. The warmth and resonance of Wright's gospel-trained contralto is matched by the intimacy and authority of such original compositions as "Coming Home," "My Heart," "Another Angel" and "When I Fall." Wright's interpretive skills are equally impressive on revelatory readings of the Ike and Tina Turner classic "I Idolize You," Sweet Honey in the Rock's "Hey Mann," the Led Zeppelin ballad "Thank You" and Patsy Cline’s haunting "Strange."
The Orchard reflects Wright's lifelong musical journey. The artist was born in the small rural town of Hahira, Georgia, one of three children of a minister father and a mother who sang gospel at church services. In her childhood, she began playing piano and singing in church with her two siblings. In high school, she broadened her musical horizons by studying choral singing, performing with groups of various sizes and winning several regional and national awards.
Wright subsequently studied voice at Georgia State University in Atlanta, and continued her musical education at New York's New School and in Vancouver. Returning to Atlanta, she won considerable regional acclaim after joining the jazz group In the Spirit. In 2002, Wright gained high-profile acclaim for her performances as part of a touring Billie Holiday tribute, for which she was singled out as a future star by several prominent critics.
Her 2003 debut Salt introduced Wright as both an accomplished songwriter and an effortlessly magnetic performer, delivering subtly persuasive vocal performances in understated jazz/R&B settings. Salt won international acclaim, earning Wright comparisons with such formidable figures as Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln. It also struck a chord with the public, reaching the Number Two slot on Billboard's Contemporary Jazz chart.
The New York Times' Stephen Holden praised Wright's "astonishing maturity and poise" and wrote that she "stirs jazz, gospel and rhythm and blues into a reflective, flowing style that elongates songs into prayerful meditations that never wander into vagueness," and described her singing as "pitch-perfect, with a smoky, full-bodied texture... impressive in its steadiness, control and rhythmic subtlety."
Dreaming Wide Awake followed in 2005, expanding Wright's interpretive range on a broad array of material ranging from Fats Waller to Neil Young. The sophomore effort reached the top position on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart, and marked the start of Wright's productive association with producer Craig Street, whose resume includes work with such notable female auteurs as Cassandra Wilson, k.d. lang and Me'Shell NdegéOcello.
Wright's collaboration with Street continues on The Orchard. While her prior releases boasted contributions from some of the jazz world's most respected jazz players, The Orchard features an eclectic cast that includes noted singer/songwriter Toshi Reagon, who co-wrote several songs with Wright; Calexico members Joey Burns and John Convertino; avant-guitar hero Oren Bloedow; longtime Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell; Ollabelle member Glenn Patscha; and guest vocalists Catherine Russell and Marc Anthony Thompson (aka Chocolate Genius).
The Orchard's fluid, intimate performances reflect the unpretentious spirit in which the music was created. The project actually began with a set of photographs taken by Wright in her rural hometown, focusing on the orchard of the title, a setting that she's known since childhood.
"The Orchard started with a trip that I took home to see my grandparents, and watching how they interacted with their neighbors and friends," Wright recalls. "It got me thinking about where I was born and grew up, and that really inspired me a lot. I took some pictures of that area, and I made a little slide show and set it to the Tom Waits song “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You” and I took that to Verve and said 'This is what I want to do.' We went back to do another photo shoot, before we'd even recorded any music. And when I sat down with Craig and the writers and musicians, I showed them the pictures and played them the Tom Waits song. Everyone responded to them in their own way, and everyone brought their own insight and sensibilities to this concept that I showed them, and that helped to take the record to a different place.
"I liked the idea of this record having a soul that was centered around the orchard," she explains. "But I didn't feel compelled to stay married to the concept. I Initially wanted this record to be very much about home, about Hahira, and I took a lot of signals from there, but it ended up becoming something else. I wanted to name it The Orchard because that's where it started."
Before they began recording, Wright and Reagon debuted The Orchard's songs with a series of low-key live sets at the small East Village club Banjo Jim's. "We played through everything to figure out how we wanted to approach the songs. We tried out a lot of arranging ideas and different approaches, and the arrangements changed every night. That was a great process, and it was a challenge to me to make something real out of these songs that I didn't really know yet. It's the first time I've done that, working through songs live before making a record and learning just how far I could push myself."
That organic approach was maintained throughout the recording process, which took place at studios in upstate New York's Catskill mountains, in Tucson, Arizona and Brooklyn. The sessions emphasized spontaneity and chemistry. "We exchanged different sounds and different textures, and worked out the arrangement right then and there,'" Wright notes. "We didn't decide before going into the studio what the songs would sound like; we just had an idea or a feeling, and sometimes Craig would suggest something or someone would play something and we'd follow the vibe. All of the musicians who were involved in this record had something to do with the way we ended up playing the songs, and I think that gave the project breadth and depth."
That rare ability to exist within the musical moment is one of the qualities that make Lizz Wright a special artist and The Orchard a career milestone. "This record was a huge learning experience, in every way, and I think it showed me a lot about myself," she states. "I never would have imagined that I would have written some of the things I wrote on this record, or told some of these stories. But I felt really free and I really let myself go, and I surprised myself."