Faith From the South, and a One-Man Band Too
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Lizz Wright on Thursday night as part of the JVC Jazz Festival.
Rahav Segev for The New York Times
If I had to choose a single word to describe the mystique of the singer Lizz Wright, it would be steadfast.
Ms. Wright, who headlined a double bill with the equally talented singer-songwriter Raul Midón at the concert hall of the New York Society for Ethical Culture on Thursday evening, is a minister’s daughter from a small town in rural Georgia. Her recent album, “The Orchard” (Verve), is a self-conscious return-to-roots record, although Ms. Wright has never ventured far from those roots.
In her last record, “Dreaming Wide Awake,” Ms. Wright’s voice brought a concentrated, churchlike gravity to the folk-jazz musical settings of the material from here, there and everywhere. From its title to its gatefold portrait of Ms. Wright, regally costumed, standing by a cypress tree in the middle of a swamp, “The Orchard” is a celebration of the South, fecundity and connection with nature. It expresses a proud and profoundly reassuring sense of knowing where you come from.
For this JVC Jazz Festival concert Ms. Wright was accompanied by a five-member band that included Toshi Reagon (on rhythm guitar and backup vocals) with whom she collaborated on 6 of the 12 songs from “The Orchard.”
All might be called contemporary spirituals. Although they describe exaltation and suffering in relationships, there is little separation in feeling between the secular and the sacred. Faith, of one kind or another, is her emotional anchor.
Even songs by others, like the Ike and Tina Turner classic “I Idolize You,” are transmuted into something majestic. In Ms. Wright’s rendition on Thursday, it metamorphosed from a wild, flailing, call-and-response rocker with a sassy girl-group chorus into a slow, deep blues shuffle, which Ms. Wright’s dark, penetrating alto infused with a mystical belief.
The Led Zeppelin ballad “Thank You” and the Patsy Cline song “Strange” underwent similar transformations.
Ms. Wright’s integrity is synonymous with her utter lack of vocal adornment. Her voice, luminous and smoky and perfectly pitched, is one of the most wondrous rhythm-and-blues instruments of our time; it needs no ornamentation to stand on a pedestal by itself.
Raul Midón in a double bill at the New York Society for Ethical Culture
Rahav Segev for The New York Times
Mr. Midón, a one-man band who turns a guitar into an orchestra and his voice into a chorus, is just as accomplished and as spiritually connected but in a sunnier way. And in his sensational set he suggested a three-way fusion of Stevie Wonder, Bobby McFerrin and José Feliciano.
Although only 42, Mr. Midón has the stage personality of an unreconstructed hippie. His lilting, continuously melodious songs, taken from two albums, “A World Within a World” and “State of Mind,” expressed a live-and-let-live Caribbean perspective. (Mr. Midón, however, is from New Mexico.)
As he used his right hand alternately to slap his guitar strings for a beat, then to fingerpick, he displayed a virtuosity that seemed effortless. His supple vocal phrasing echoed Mr. Wonder’s in some songs; in others he turned his voice into a trumpet, then traded playful back-and-forth dialogue between the simulated horn and his natural voice. Elsewhere the flurries of strumming echoed Mr. Feliciano’s intense, flamenco-flavored guitar solos.
Mr. Midón and Ms. Wright made a persuasive case for personal, accessible music oblivious to trends: real music as opposed to fashionable pop sound.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company