The first time I heard Lizz Wright’s voice was in the summer of 2005. I was a young jazz journalist and her second album, Dreaming Wide Awake, had just been launched here in the UK to ululations from the plaster mask-stiff jazz press. Wright’s debut disc, Salt, had been released two years earlier and it was a full-bodied affair, featuring striking versions of ‘Afro Blue’ and ‘Soon As I Get Home’ that felt more visceral and lived-in than the originals (a remarkable feat considering that Wright was only twenty three when the album was issued). At the time I compared Wright to Cassandra Wilson, because both singers transfused deep-cut Abbey Lincoln-style flourishes into a Feijoada of jazz, folk and roots balladry flavoured with the blues. But there was something singular about Wright then and, fifteen years later, this remains the case.
If, as Beethoven said, music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life, Lizz Wright is the apotheosis of such a mediation. Her music pulses with the kind of sultriness that owes a substantial debt to the divine. There is no division between the two worlds. In Wright’s hands, the sacred and the sensuous are constantly performing a passionate dance: a cacuriá between the corporeal and the kind of bone-deep Christianity that has buoyed the best jazz and soul musicians from Sam Cooke to Dinah Washington to Otis Redding to Allen Toussaint.
How else could her cover of Ike and Tina Turner’s ‘I Idolize You’ feel as sexy as a kiss on the collarbone and as sacrosanct as holy water? How else could her rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ feel as comforting as a communion and a caress? Her entire discography is dipped in moments like these, moments where grace, in both the transcendental and the tactile sense, is arranged like a bouquet of ghost orchids: a rare regalo to be treasured again and again.
All of this is to say that her work embodies an extrasensory energy and, as such, her melodies have remained the soundscape to my life. I have played her music when I needed to anchor my perceptions and find peace. I have played her music during courtship and carnal bliss. I have played her music when I was in the midst of a mental health crisis. I have played her music during moments of solitude and sleep. This is music with purpose, music that was made to remind the listener that there is space for vulnerability and longing, and that loneliness doesn’t have to be the defining strand in anyone’s story: that we can create our own communities if we crave it and find love in all its multi-layered majesty. This might seem like a utopian projection-on-parabolin but there is truth to it.
There was a winter many years ago when London experienced a heavy snow storm. As it worsened I foolishly left my then partner’s flat in West London but only got as far as Brixton. By then all the transport links had been locked off and even buses were no longer in operation. So I schlepped from Brixton to Peckham in icy conditions, ravenous and riddled with anxiety. As I made my way down to Dulwich, I pressed play on Lizz Wright’s Dreaming Wide Awake. As soon as I heard the opener, ‘A Taste of Honey,’ my muscles unclenched and the tension dissipated. At that time I had a disabling phobia of snow because it conjured up memories of cold mental hospitals and intimated anarchy and violence. Listening to Wright’s music that day taught me that panic attacks don’t have to dictate one’s existence; that ultimately we are the sole governors of our own bodies, particularly in relation to how we move in the world, regardless of what our respective surveillance states would have us believe.
I haven’t had a panic attack since then and I no longer fear snow storms. This might sound hyperbolic but ain’t that holiness at its most elemental? The power to offer curatives, music with medicinal properties, in the age of dread and doubt?
Please join me in pouring libations of black wine for the wonderful Ms. Wright.