Lizz Wright Takes Control


“I decided from that experience that I wanted to get back to the stage in a way that made me feel closer to the people,” Wright said.

(Photo: Jesse Kitt)

During the pandemic, Lizz Wright delved more deeply into her love of the culinary arts. With her performing on pause, cooking was another kind of voice for the successful singer-songwriter. And the fulfillment she felt working as a ground-to-table chef at the South Side Chicago café that she runs with her wife, arts administrator Monica Haslip, surprised her. Many of the locals knew nothing about her global celebrity as a jazz singer. Instead, Wright’s easy relationships with her patrons arose simply from sharing time and space with one other.

“I decided from that experience that I wanted to get back to the stage in a way that made me feel closer to the people, that I didn’t want to follow practices that were based on a star-like hierarchy,” Wright said in a call from her Windy City home. “I want to be with the people I’m singing to. I want to know what their lives are like. I want to feel in touch with them in a real way.”

Her new album, Holding Space, a live recording of a Berlin concert in 2018, captures this nuanced interplay. For Wright, who grew up singing to church congregations, an audience often seems like a single entity — and, as such, an active participant in the dialog that she initiates from the stage.

“There’s a chance that with this live record, and the film that goes with it, that people will actually realize that they’re a part of what happens, that they’re a part of that energy,” she said. “In a way, there is no total spectator.”

Even as Holding Space provides testament to the exciting subtlety of live performance, it also marks a related shift in Wright’s business approach: The album is the inaugural release on her new label, Blues and Greens Records, and the first for which she owns the masters. She retains complete control over their use.

“I couldn’t get it out of my head that I wanted to have my own label,” Wright continued. “I wanted to figure out how to unravel my own knots, to get clarity on what I was doing, and to make sure that how I make music and [handle] the business really reflects who I am. When everything broke down for a minute [during the pandemic], I finally felt less afraid, and the canvas was clear. I started reimagining how [my music career] could be. I didn’t think I could continue as I was.”

This is no small statement. Over the last two decades, Wright has occupied a top spot on vocal jazz playlists, with six albums on major labels to her credit. She’s guested with the likes of Danilo Pérez, Toots Thielemans, Terri Lyne Carrington and Taj Mahal, among many others. And she’s toured the distant capitals of the world several times over.

The new album doesn’t flout any of this accomplishment. In fact, all but one of the album’s 11 tracks derive from her major releases. But the album, fastidiously recorded in the historic Columbia Theater, reveals Wright’s disarming commitment to her audience in a way that a studio recording doesn’t. You hear this on “Barley,” from 2017’s Grace (Concord), where Wright’s impromptu vocal riffs and beseeching tone only heighten the visceral feel of the blues lament. Or on k.d. lang’s “Wash Me Clean,” also from Grace, its unhurried pulse amplifying the ache in Wright’s gorgeous alto. Most importantly, you also hear the raptness of the audience, broken only by bursts of generous applause.

With this album, too, Wright gives more than glancing credit to her band members — bassist Ben Zwerin, keyboardist Bobby Sparks, guitarist Chris Bruce and drummer Ivan Edwards — for the creative affinity that they’ve developed over the years. It bothers her, she says, when their contributions to her performances get short shrift.

“I trust [my band] with my whole life, and I’ve never shared my real relationship with them,” Wright said. “But we play together because of how we feel about one another. It’s nice to share that and speak from that place. We bring all that back to the stage with us now, and it certainly has changed things. I’m glad that [the audience] knows who they’re listening to. It’s never been just me, and now it really isn’t just me. It feels much better.”

On the album, Wright and her quartet bite hard into some of her grittier tunes, like the traditional gospel anthem “Walk With Me, Lord” from her 2003 Verve debut Salt, and “Somewhere Down The Mystic” and “The New Game,” both Wright originals (with Larry Klein and David Batteau) from her 2015 Concord debut Freedom & Surrender. The group’s easeful descent into the emotional shadows of these songs speaks to the intuitive closeness of their collaborative aesthetic.

Wright touches on all of these issues — the importance of audience witness, the sacredness of performance spaces, the depth of team relationships — in Holding Space: Lizz Wright Live In Berlin, a 15-minute film launched simultaneously with the album. Beyond album promotion, Wright delineates herself as an artist, in her own words, through this film. Such creative autonomy lies at the center of Wright’s pioneering business model.

When Wright realized that she needed to change her business approach, she initiated important conversations with her regular collaborators — the band, her photographers, her promoters. In these conversations, she laid out her need as an artist to choose for herself how she presents in the world. Their positive response was heartening, she said.

“These are the articles of my legacy,” Wright said. “When I get so old that I’m not able to move around and tour and record exactly the way I do now, I need to have my own vault of the things I have built. I want to be able to share these things and manage my own narrative.

“I will never give these things away,” she continued. “We can find ways to take care of everybody involved and be respectful and even design some of these terms together. But it should never be that we give away the rights to the things that we make just for the opportunity to make them.”

Wright’s conviction about artists’ business rights is strong. She asks, how would Billie Holiday have presented herself had she been given control of her recordings, photographs and films — in short, had she been allowed to tell her story directly. “To me, her own interpretation of her experiences is as rich as her catalog,” Wright said.

From this place of conviction, Wright has begun reaching out to other artists, sharing what she knows. It’s a good time for artists who want to step away from institutional sponsorship, she contends, given the technology that gives artists the freedom to create apart from certain business restrictions.

As part of her outreach, earlier this year Wright became a mentor with New Jazz Legacy, an apprenticeship program for women and non-binary jazz artists sponsored by Berklee Institute of Jazz & Gender Justice and New Music USA. In this role, she extends herself above and beyond the usual mentorship duties: Not only did she include mentee Keyanna Hutchinson on some of her gigs this year, but she offered the “monster guitar player” a nature retreat where the emerging artist could explore her creative impulses in spaciousness and quiet.

“I want to share the joy of that freedom and inspire people to keep looking outward, in order to get deeper inside,” she said. DB

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