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Lizz Wright: Georgia on her mind

Former Atlanta vocalist returns to her roots on The Orchard

For all of her newfound fame, Lizz Wright has never forgotten the images that endure from her childhood growing up in Middle Georgia. They're as indelible as her husky alto vocals. The rich red clay, the rolling pastures, the swamps and, of course, the orchards of her youth — they all came back to her in some kind of natural reunion of a woman and her literal native land.

That reunion, coming on the heels of her second album, resulted in her third effort, The Orchard, by far her best work to date. Chalk it up to Mother Nature.

"Well, my family, we have a history of gardeners," the 28-year-old recalls by phone from her home in Brooklyn. "And further back into slavery times, we were sharecroppers, so we were always dealing with the earth. And that's where I end up when I really go home to rest. You know, helping out in the garden or in the field. Going fishing in the back yard. That kind of thing."

But it was the orchards that really inspired the vocalist, who in three albums has established a genre-defying style that features a mix of jazz, pop, folk and blues but has an identity all its own.

"We used to go out to the peach orchards sometimes on Sundays after church just to pick buckets of peaches," recalls Wright, who sang with her siblings in the churches where her father served as pastor. "So just seeing trees stand together like that has always — a garden of trees — has always made me think of my family."

On The Orchard, the 28-year-old's third release on Verve Forecast, home is where her heart is, and that makes the album something just short of a masterpiece in its blend of original and covered material. It's her second collaboration with producer Craig Street. His work with like-minded vocalists Cassandra Wilson and Norah Jones offered a glimpse of what would come in her sophomore effort, 2005's Dreaming Wide Awake, which reached the top of the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart.

And while Dreaming is a vast improvement over her promising if overly polished 2003 debut, Salt (No. 2 on those same charts), The Orchard represents a quantum leap in Wright's growth as an artist. Her rich vocals, already self-assured and pitch-perfect, continue to evolve into something even more mature beyond her years. She has grown as a songwriter thanks in part to her collaborations with Toshi Reagon. The fellow Atlantan, daughter of Sweet Honey in the Rock co-founder Bernice Johnson Reagon, has inspired Wright since Dreaming Wide Awake. (Wright even covers Sweet Honey in the Rock's "Hey Mann," with its soulful, a cappella intro, on this album.)

On "My Heart," Wright practically demands a would-be (and seemingly hesitant) lover to give in, her vocals riding on an insistent Latin rhythm: "Time is passing and it's getting late/This heart of mine just can't wait/ And after all that we've been through/I maybe get there, I wanna give it to you, baby."

Wright almost seems embarrassed by the song's inspiration. "We were hanging out, and I was yapping on one day about something personal and Reagon was sitting there with my guitar and started laughing and playing it back to me, laughing at what I was doing," Wright says. "I came back a week later and she had finished it! And I was like, 'I don't sing stuff like this. This is some quick-fix R&B stuff." But after some discussion in the studio, Wright loved the finished version. "I was wrong again!"

Wright also has become an even bolder interpreter of other artists' material, which Street helped select.

On Ike Turner's "I Idolize You," for example, Wright takes Tina Turner's growling R&B version and slows it down to a bluesy torch song of a ballad, snaking her way through Glenn Patscha's Hammond B-3 and old Atlanta friend Kenny Banks' acoustic piano bursts. It's aching and demanding all at once.

"The fight in her voice was the same fight in the voice I heard in the church," Wright says. "That fight was there because life was so hard. There were a lot of single moms in my church. Some people are just angry and they don't know they're angry."

Wright's artistic evolution springs from Georgia roots that grew during her childhood but also continued into her college and post-collegiate years in Atlanta. It was here that she started to hone her voice, both in the classroom at Georgia State University and on the stage at Churchill Grounds. Dwight Coleman, chair of Georgia State's music school, rarely took on freshmen until he heard Wright audition, and was stricken by the maturity of her voice.

"So many times when you hear young voices that have a strong gospel background, a strong R&B background or a strong musical-theater background, you hear technical issues that you'll have to undo before you can start a healthy sort of technical process," Coleman says. "And I didn't hear any of that with Lizz. I just heard a natural, balanced, healthy vocal sound that, as a vocal teacher, I could lead in a direction where she could be successful in the business."

Not long after she began her studies, Wright began hanging around in the local jazz scene, sitting in on the jam sessions at Churchill Grounds near the Fox Theatre. Kenny Banks, the local jazz pianist who still performs on Wright's albums, can't recall the first song they played together. But he does recall what he first thought of her: "I was blown away by her presence. And she doesn't even move a lot onstage. It was how she stood, and her poise. It just knocked me off my feet. Standing flat-footed and just singing."

Wright used her confidence to her advantage, settling down a chatting crowd with an understated but powerful delivery. "We might be performing at a club, and the club would be pretty loud, people talkin', and she would get up and sing without saying one thing, and I promise you, within five seconds, the club was so quiet you could hear a pin drop," Banks says. "People would say, 'She's just got a sound!' And she wouldn't even do the most incredible tricky runs. She was never about that. One whole note that lasted eight beats, and she would blow you away."

Her work with the local group In the Spirit led to national attention, capped off by a series of Billie Holiday tributes and a record deal with Verve Forecast. Wright's career trajectory has remained consistently high ever since. One has to wonder what her ceiling is, considering the stratosphere sometimes seems limited to the home-run-hitting altos of jazz and R&B. But Wright has an uncanny way of filling her alto voice with rich colors and tones.

How does she do it? Coleman's theory is pretty simple: "She has a very healthy onset of the breath and onset of the tone. She's thinking the thoughts she has before she says a phrase, and that colors her phrase. She's thinking ahead. With Lizz, when the thoughts are there, they flow out in a way that those thoughts unintentionally color the voice. And it gives you the mood."

Wright believes it's more than thought; it also comes from the heart, whether it's about a distant lover or a distant land that, on The Orchard, she has fallen in love with once again.

"If I have a gift, it has more to do with feeling things deeply, and to feel people deeply," she says. "And to let it right back out and to have an instrument that creates room to let that happen. That makes the interpretation seem from the body. A lot of that language has to do with emotion. I think it's a lot about feeling."