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Lizz Wright: Grace

James Nadal By

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In reaffirming the adage that you can go home again, Lizz Wright did just that. The songs on Grace reflect a homecoming to the singer's southern heritage—a personal rite of passage to glean inspiration and redefine her musical origins. She revisits her rural Georgia upbringing and Atlanta gospel roots, and finds comfort at her current home in Asheville, North Carolina. Having had an enduring taste of fame and success, she articulates the need for humanity, direly absent in times like these.

Possessing a discernible earthy vocal quality, and recognized as a riveting interpreter of any song she sings, this time around Wright opts for an Americana theme guided by the expertise of producer Joe Henry, who proves to be a wise choice for the project. In keeping with Wright's natural inclinations, there is an inherent sense of the music that has forever buoyed the spirit of the black community, where she has been culturally grounded since Wright's days as musical director of her father's church.

"Barley" is a rhythmic acoustic blues that conjures images of farmlands, down home country living and unwavering faith. The iconic Nina Simone continues to cast a mesmerizing spell over contemporary singers, and Wright fell under her sway long ago. She does a remarkable version of Simone's "Seems I'm Never Tired Of Lovin' You," bringing in an impressive Atlanta church choir under the direction of Kenny Banks Sr., a local gospel legend. They come in around mid-song, and the increasing vocal textures add a divine proclivity to the outcome.

The traditional gospel "Singing In My Soul," long associated with Sister Rosetta Tharpe, comes with a swinging cadence, embellished by electric guitars amidst a sanctified shuffle. Allen Toussaint's signature "Southern Nights" is returned to the bayous and backwaters from where it came, with Wright successfully projecting the bucolic imagery the song intended. The road back to Atlanta goes right through Ray Charles, and he is given his due with "What Would I Do," with the choir brought back, accompanied by a deliberate church-inspired piano.

In breaking with her personal practice of composing the title track on her records, "Grace" was written by Rose Cousins, and given the royal Wright treatment, the choir returning for an encore. Wright contributes her romantic magic on the standard "Stars Fell On Alabama," while Bob Dylan's "Every Grain of Sand" is transported to a place where poetry, country and blues melt into the setting sun. There is an undercurrent of sensuality evident in Wright's voice, which she can conjure up at will, as she does on "Wash Me Clean," a k.d. lang ballad, converted into a soulful yearning moan. She co-wrote "All The Way Here," with Maia Sharp, a biographical tale of coming to terms with where she's been and what she has become, as the album comes to an end.

There are few singers that are comfortable in a variety of styles while maintaining individuality and quality in the process. Lizz Wright can take any song into another dimension, yet she chooses with care as she is a firm believer in song as a means of message and hope. Her voice has a kind and tender quality that is evidence of her engagement with life on the higher spiritual plane from which she sings.

Track Listing: Barley; Seems I’m Never Tired Of Lovin’ You; Singing In My Soul; Southern Nights; What Would I Do; Grace; Stars Fell On Alabama; Every Grain Of Sand; Wash Me Clean; All The Way Here.

Personnel: Lizz Wright: vocals; Jay Bellerose: drums, percussion; David Piltch: upright bass; Chris Bruce: acoustic and electric guitar; Marvin Sewell: acoustic and electric guitar; Kenny Banks: piano, Hammond organ; Patrick Warren: keyboards (3, 9, 10); Marc Ribot: electric guitar (7); Valorie Mack: backing vocals (2, 5, 6); Cathy Rollins: backing vocals (2, 5, 6); Artia Lockett: backing vocals (2, 5, 6); Angela Jenifer: backing vocals (2, 5, 6); Sheree-Monique: backing vocals (2, 5, 6); K. Heshima White: backing vocals (2, 5, 6); Ted Jenifer: backing vocals (2, 5, 6); Kevin O’Hara: backing vocals (2, 5, 6); Kenny Banks, Sr.:vocal choir director (2, 5, 6).

Title: Grace | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Concord Music Group

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