Wright Offers Joyful Tribute to Fitzgerald in Washington, D.C.

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Singer-songwriter Lizz Wright’s next album, Grace, is scheduled for release in September.

(Photo: Jesse Kitt)

Vocalist Lizz Wright appeared at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., on April 21 to honor the centennial anniversary of Ella Fitzgerald. Being a strong song stylist and songwriter in her own right, Wright fronted a contemporary quartet and steered firmly clear of callow mimicry.

Thanks in large part to Bobby Ray Sparks’ ebullient organ accompaniments and scorching solos, Chris Rosser’s countrified guitar riffs and Nicholas D’Amato’s soulful bass lines, Wright superbly channeled her Southern gospel roots as she delivered a mesmerizing mixture of coffeehouse soul, jazz and Americana.

After opening with a stunning reading of “The Nearness Of You,” Wright engaged drummer Jay Marshall in a delightful duet rendition of “What Is This Thing Called Love?” After the full band arrived on stage, Wright’s espresso-flavored alto scintillated on other songs associated with Fitzgerald, such as “Embraceable You” and “Stars Fell Over Alabama.”

Still, Wright didn’t adhere strictly to Fitzgerald repertoire. She peppered the concert with other poignant material, including “Seems I’m Never Tired Lovin’ You,” a rare Nina Simone ballad, and her own formidable originals, like “Freedom” and “Somewhere Down The Mystic.”

Backstage prior to the concert, Wright discussed her feelings about Fitzgerald and revealed what she hoped to bring to the evening’s performance.

What’s the genesis behind your Ella Fitzgerald tribute— besides the fact that we’re celebrating the centennial anniversary of her birth?

I’ve wanted to celebrate Ella for a long time because she’s such a baaad musician. But she’s really, really accessible. And she was clearing having fun [when performing or recording]. I think musicians like Ella, Diz and Monk—you could really feel that they were having fun. They didn’t convey this heavy, scholarly approach. It was just a way of them expressing themselves.

Obviously, this being the centennial year is reason to celebrate Ella. I’ve been celebrating her already very openly. Ten years ago, we did a PBS special out in Los Angeles. So now, here we are and everyone is talking her up.

Earlier in your career, you expressed reticence about how some people were projecting a conventional definition of jazz onto your artistry. You noted how uncomfortable and confining that made you feel. Throughout your career, you’ve delved into soul, gospel, country, blues and pop. How does it feel to circle back to jazz in the traditional sense?

It’s fun. I never left jazz. The relationship between structure and improvisation—that constant conversation and tension—I’ve always wanted in every genre and song that I perform. I never want anything to fall flat and get very measured and redundant. I get bored very quickly.

Jazz has a lot to do with being very present. You know the structure, then you flow through it. Jazz has provided the framework for all the other stuff that I’ve done. That’s why I never felt like I had to leave it. At any point, I could drop in and focus on that; jazz still feels integral to me.

At tonight’s performance, how much of the set list is going to be songs associated with Fitzgerald and how much will be material from your own catalog?

I can’t remember exactly how the agents pitched this concert. But now that I’m here and my feet are on the ground, I feel the need to pay tribute to Ella but also sing the songs in an order and in a way that reveals her influence on what I do. One of the things that I love about her—and this could be one of the simplest things that could be said—is that I love the way that she could deliver a lyric. She takes her time; it’s very musical.

It’s very hip now to sing in such an affected way. Some people don’t even know what you’re singing. It’s all about the attitude, the groove around you and the essence of what you could be saying.

Ella delivered a lyric in such a way that as a songwriter, I’m inspired. I realized that there is a way for a lyric to be delivered from a vocalist that can cause a listener to actually think about the songwriter, and what he or she intended by the lyrics.

You’ve demonstrated a mindfulness about which compositions you sing. What was the research process like when delving in this enormous body of material associated with Fitzgerald? How did you find the right material for your voice?

When you learn a lot of music across several genres and you love the American story, you can just stare at the fabric and cut a different shape every single time; it’s like a personal letter to where you are and to what’s happening right now. That’s the beauty of writing a set list.

That’s a practice that I learned in church when I was about 10 or 11. When you put together the songs for a church service, you’re really thinking about what you want the people to feel at certain times. So you build an arc with the sequence. It’s still the same thing now. I have a couple of things to address but there’s still something that I need to say right now. What I love about the tradition of growing up in church is that I understand this aspect of being a messenger and speaking to the present.

One of my favorite excerpts from a Nina Simone interview is when she says that it’s important for artists to speak to the present. I think we can do that even by using the past to do it. It’s really safe right now to go tribute-heavy. But I think it’s important even while paying tribute to draw connections to the present and to speak directly to it.

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