Slow Down And Listen
Lizz Wright's Two-Night Stand at City Winery Will Be a Real Conversation

By Lee Valentine Smith

From her humble beginnings in Hahira, Georgia to a stint at Georgia State to living and learning in New York and Chicago, Lizz Wright has established herself as one of the preeminent jazz musicians of her time. Her southern gospel training has also grounded her to seek out the true roots of the spiritual side of the arts.

In addition to a wonderfully diverse catalog of jazz-centric recordings and successful international tours, the erudite singer-songwriter also teaches - and cooks - at a fascinating and experimental artist's enclave called Little Black Pearl in Chicago [www.blackpearl.org].

Wright spoke with INsite by phone after a recent European tour.

Where is home now? At your retreat on the mountain in Asheville or in the busy metropolis of Chicago?

Asheville is my secondary place now. It's a place to go to sit very still. Chicago is my primary home. I was getting to be a little too much like a lonely profit out in the woods. I think nature's at fault for me wanting to go back to the city. Nature reminded me that I'm not so untethered.

The energy of a major city is undeniable.

That's true and here people are like trees, they take in everything and they display it in their leaves and branches. I live here as a musician but also as a teacher and a cook [at Black Pearl's Carver 47 Café]. It's real life - and that's where the songs are coming from, living.

If you aren't examining real life, you'll run out of good ideas.

That's true and sometimes I got carried away - but in a beautiful way - obsessing over people's lives who were very involved in family and work and the community. I envied that. You can start writing fantasies about what it's like to belong and to love, but you need to truly live it.

Your shows coming up at City Winery should be very different than your recent appearance at the Atlanta Jazz Festival.

Yes. I love Atlanta and I feel like if I'm going to have a two-night stand anywhere, why not have it in a place that's been such a great nest for me? Atlanta has never stopped teaching me. My family came to the Jazz Festival and I felt like I had half of my life out there staring back at me. It was exciting but now that I'm back in pre-production mode there's not a better place to play, try out new things and have a real conversation with the audience.

The Winery is an exceptional place to work on new material. The audiences really listen.

I agree and this will also be the second time I've been able to have a sleeve in the menu. I'm excited about offering new ideas to taste while I'm singing to them. It's one of the first times in my life I've been able to combine the cook and the composer. City Winery has been so open about helping me find ways to bring people closer together.

Was the ritual of food a big part of your formative years?

Always. We'd sing, eat and have devotional services at the table. So this is a real homecoming in many ways.

The Jazz Festival is great, but you're competing with all the heat and noise of the city.

Right, that's why this show is so different because it's a real conversation at a table. It's a place to bring new ideas and feel safe about sharing them. But I love the relationship I've had with Atlanta since the very beginning. When I first got there, I was walking around asking musicians what to listen to - and why. I learned so much.

You spent a lot of time at Georgia State and that's a very vibrant, nurturing space.

It is and Atlanta just has a welcoming community in the arts, music and spirituality. You come to do a show and you end up being inside of it. It's so immersive for me.

Tell us about the sleeve in the menu. What sort of delicacies have you planned?

It's all over the place. I got enthused about pimento cheese, concord grapes, pickled okra. It was fun to talk to another cook and exchange ideas about what was possible and what wasn't. I appreciate the opportunity to collaborate and have something personal to offer. And there'll be wine of course. That makes everything better.

Will you have a Lizz Wright label wine?

I need to check on that. I have some beautiful old shots of my uncle in his garden. They're so rustic and anchored in the earth. I don't know if I can convince them to put a picture of a man on a tractor on a wine bottle when it's my show, but we'll see.

What was your childhood like down in Hahira? That's almost Florida.

Yeah, it's near the state line and I loved it. It has a beautiful sweetness in the air that reminds me a bit of New Orleans. Lots of Spanish moss on the trees and cane syrup. So many tastes and smells. I loved how slow people talked down there. It taught me to really slow down and listen to the conversation.

Lizz Wright plays City Winery on Sunday, August 11 and Monday, August 12. Doors open at 6 and showtime is 8 p.m. For more information, please visit citywinery.com/atlanta.

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