The 25th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival was held over a picture-perfect weekend in mid-June at the venerable Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Featuring a who’s who line-up of performers befitting the historic nature of both the event and venue, it is all the more remarkable-and encouraging-that one of the most engaging performances of the first day came from neo-soul singer Lizz Wright, two years younger at age 23 than the festival itself. Ms. Wright’s enchanting blend of jazz and soul grabbed the attention of the sold-out crowd from the very first note of her set and held it until it ended some fifty minutes later.
In a fortuitous coincidence, a number of corks popped off of bottles in my section of the Bowl as Ms. Wright took the stage with her version of Chick Corea’s "Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly." This seemed appropriate as her singing immediately revealed itself to possess the qualities of a good, young red Bourdeaux. The first thing you noticed as she began to sing was how big her voice was; as the song opened up, you became aware of the richness and depth of her vocals and how much complexity there was in the way she finished her lines. As the show continued you could hear intriguing traces of other singers-the suggestion of a stronger-voiced Tracy Chapman in "Lead the Way," for example-but the overwhelming impression was of the uniqueness of her sound.
Lizz Wright seemed entirely at home on stage, particularly given that this had to have been one of the most important performances of her career. True, she had performed at the Bowl last year to much acclaim during a tribute to Billie Holiday, but the Playboy Jazz Festival is by nature an international event. She radiated poise as she delivered nine songs from her Verve debut Salt
, using hand gestures to emphasize certain lines-at times appearing to shape them as one would waves from a Theremin-but never did so in a manner that overshadowed what she was singing. Ms. Wright was ably backed by an accomplished and sympathetic group of musicians that included drummer E.J. Strickland, bassist Doug Weiss, keyboardist Jon Cowherd and percussionist Jeff Hayes.
The second song of her set was "Soon as I Get Home" from The Wiz
. That she was portraying the part of Dorothy and not the experience of every one of us wasn’t evident until she got to the lines about the Wiz himself. This, of course, is exactly as it should be. The afternoon’s rendition opened with a brief a cappella passage that really seemed to draw in the crowd, and the overall success of the piece itself is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that it prompted emcee Bill Cosby back onstage to enthusiastically lead the crowd in applause. "Lead the Way" was next, a soulful number written by Salt
co-producer Brian Blade. With its inspirational lyrics and a groove that harkens back to the days when R&B represented a true symbiosis of both rhythm and blues rather than being so-called more on account of historical convention, this song was a hit with the crowd and deserves to be one with a wider audience as well.
Next came the group’s languid reading of Mongo Santamaria’s "Afro Blue," their arrangement of the verse and chorus reminiscent of Free Will
-era Gil Scott-Heron in its use of off-beats and distinguished the excellent interplay between Cowherd’s piano and Hayes on congas during the instrumental break. One of the best numbers on the day, though, didn’t feature the band at all-Wright wowed the audience with a gorgeous a cappella reading of her original "Silence." On the record, backed by the guitars of Mr. Blade & Adam Rogers, the song carries a distinct element of the folk blues, that notorious province of the Devil. Here, shorn of instrumental accompaniment, the song was transformed into a spiritual. The lyrics of the song themselves, however, seem to provide a clever commentary on the relationship between silence and musical sound, able to exist comfortably at either pole. Wright and band followed this with "Salt," Cowherd’s sanctified piano and the gospel rhythms extending the feeling created by "Silence." This number found Ms. Wright extending her vocal range to the highest points she had reached all day, much to the delight of all assembled. This was meant to be the last number of the set, but Mr. Cosby would have none of it. The beloved and veteran entertainer, with the aid of what could now fairly be termed her fans, coaxed from her an encore, rare on the day: the group’s funky arrangement of the traditional "Walk With Me, Lord."
A fine wine is impressive when young, but its hallmark, of course, is that it improves with age. Lizz Wright is an impressive talent now and stands only to get better as her music progresses. Enjoy her music now and in the years to come.