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Photograph by Michael Piazza

Georgia Peach: Young jazz vocalist Lizz Wright isn't salty.

Wright Stuff

Hotlanta vocalist Lizz Wright warms up the San Jose Jazz Festival

By Yoshi Kato

"SALT" isn't a word associated with summer. Sugar, definitely. And maybe even pepper. Salt just seems like a winter word, used to defrost icy walkways. But salt is the smell and taste of the ocean. And then there's the salt hanging from the rim of a margarita glass. Salt is also the title of vocalist/songwriter Lizz Wright's debut album, which was released last year on the Verve label. The Georgia native performs Sunday at 2pm on the San Jose Jazz Festival Main Stage. And after hearing her set, salt—and Lizz Wright—may become synonymous with the warm days of summer.

In the same sense that salt is the most basic of seasonings and was once used to preserve fish, Wright's music harkens back to the church music of her upbringing. Her father was musical director in the family's local church, and she and her siblings would support him in song. By 14, Wright was helping with piano duties, as well.

Combining a rural realness with a metropolitan sense of style, she creates a sophisticated yet organic music, which draws upon jazz, gospel and soul. It's the sound of a double bass and drum-kit rhythm section with Fender Rhodes electric keyboard or of acoustic piano backing a passionate vocal.

"I'm still trying to get it to fit me. Yeah, I'm still searching," she says, of her panstylistic brand of music. "I'm very happy about the pieces and the parts that have remained over time. I'm also happy about the ones that fall in the way that I can't really do anymore.

"The interesting thing is I'm able to do this kind of experimenting and have this kind of expedition with people watching. And they're all right with it," she continues by phone from a tour stop in Spain. "Most people have a very strong and already defined sense of their concept is when they come up."

Upon entering Georgia State University, the now 24-year-old majored in music performance. The vocal portion only focused on classical and not on jazz singing, so she left school after a year and immersed herself in the Atlanta jazz scene during the late '90s. First she was an audience member, and later she sat in on jam sessions. A year later, she was invited to join the Atlanta-based jazz ensemble In the Spirit.

"It was wonderful, like being surrounded by big brothers. Not only the band, but people who came out to the [Atlanta] club, Churchill Grounds, they would bring music and things to study," she recalls. "And it was like taking a crash course. It was what I wanted from college, but I got it from the community.

"For like three years, that's all I did is just play with them. And I was just learning," she adds. "I was taking in so much information, everybody always told me what they thought about everything."

Meeting her main collaborator, pianist/keyboardist Kenny Banks, with whom she wrote the Salt track "Blue Rose," "really was a big push for me, a big catapult. He kind of pushed me out into the whole thing I'm doing now."

One of those things involved shooting a video last year for "Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly" with auteur Spike Lee.

"Spike is very intense when he gets to work. I never had to be that focused," she says. "It definitely gave me a taste of what it's going to be like to work with directors and to be in front of the camera.

"I haven't taken or seen that many pictures of myself. Just giving energy to this big eyeball, it was interesting," she observes, with a chuckle. "I really learned a lot, and I'm very proud that I had that experience."

Four of the dozen Salt songs are originals, including the powerful title track. With a strong sense of narrative flow and complementary instrumentation, her numbers don't sound out of place with others' works. Examples of Wright's personal style can also be heard in the interpretation of Mongo Santamaria and Oscar Brown Jr.'s classic "Afro Blue." Infused with a trumpet, trombone and alto saxophone, it sizzles deliberately while most versions typically scorch or sway. There's also a take on "Soon as I Get Home" from The Wiz.

"It's one of my favorite movies," she says. The song was suggested by drummer, composer, SFJAZZ Collective member and occasional acoustic guitarist Brian Blade, who co-produced Salt.

"Brian actually suggested that I do it," she explains. "And I said, 'Oh my gosh, yes! My friends from Atlanta still sing songs from The Wiz all the time, so they'd love this!'"

There have been constant rumors about a remake of The Wiz for a hip-hop generation. With her recent experience in front of the lens, perhaps she'd be a good Dorothy?

"I don't know, man. That's one of the richest movies. It's just so soulful," she says, "and when it was made was such a part of that time. So I don't know if I want to see a remake. They'd have to completely come up with something original for it to work."

Kind of like your music, Lizz. Kind of like your music.

Comcast San Jose Jazz Festival

Much more than a standard outdoor concert, the San Jose Jazz Festival packs performances from acclaimed artists on seven stage venues. There are also master classes, jam sessions, Jazz After Dark, films, jazz masses, a Latin music night at the HP Pavilion and more. All events take place in and around downtown San Jose's Plaza de Cesar Chavez (Market and San Carlos) and are free unless otherwise noted. Proceeds from concessions benefit the Jazz Society's education programs and annual jazz camp. For more information, call 408.288.7557.

Thursday, Aug. 5

Opening Night Gala
Santana Row, 400 S. Winchester Blvd. 408.998.3600
6pm dinner/7:30pm show; $175-$1750
The gala is an intimate concert featuring the San Jose Jazz Orchestra, Kim Nalley, Jamie Davis and the Taylor Eigsti Trio. Tickets are sold as complete tables only.

Friday, Aug. 6

Main Stage, Plaza de Cesar Chavez
5:30pm - Los Rumberos
7:30pm - Bobby Sanabria

Music After Dark
San Salvador Street, between Market and First, free
8pm - David Ladd's Downtown All-Stars

Gypsy Cinema
Circle of Palms
8pm - screening of A Great Day in Harlem

Salsa Dance Party
HP Pavilion, 525 W. Santa Clara St.
9pm; $15-$20 Manny Oquendo y Libre and Ralph Irizarry and Timbalaye—a night of salsa dancing!

Jazz Society Jam Session
Pete Escovedo's Latin Jazz Club, 400 S. First St.
9pm; $5/10

Saturday, Aug. 7

Main Stage, Plaza de Cesar Chavez
Noon - The LeBoeuf Brothers
2pm - SJ Jazz Society Orchestra with Steve and Michael Turre
4pm - James Moody
6pm - Pete Escovedo Orchestra with Ray Vega and Justo Almario

Latin Stage, San Fernando and First streets
1pm - Viva Brasil
3pm - Rumba Club
5pm - Al Molina Latin Jazz Sextet
7pm - Insight

Salsa Stage, San Fernando and Market streets
12:30pm - Charanga Nueve
2:30pm - Palenque
4:30pm - Mazacote
6:30pm - Jesus Diaz y su QBA

San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio
12:30pm - LifeForce Jazz All-Stars
2:30pm - Jovino Santos-Neto Trio
4:30pm - John Worley
6:30pm - Dena DeRose

Smith Dobson Stage, 400 S. First St.
12:30pm - Glen Pearson Trio
2:30pm - John Stowell Trio
4:30pm - Hafez Modirzadeh Quartet
6:30pm - Tierney Sutton

Blues Stage, San Fernando St. and Almaden Blvd.
12:30pm - Big City Thrill
2:30pm - The Hucklebucks
4:30pm - Ms. Taylor P. Collins
6:30pm - Gary Smith Blues Band

Youth Stage, inside Tech Museum
Noon - San Jose Jazz Society Combo
1pm - Rainbow Montessori Vocal Ensemble
2pm - Folsom High School Big Band
3pm - Folsom High School Vocal Ensemble
4pm - San Jose Jazz Society Youth Orchestra, featuring Steve Turre, directed by Dave Gregoric

Big Band Stage, Post and Market streets
1pm - NASA Ames Big Band
2:30pm - Swing Solution, directed by Dave Satre
4pm - Foothill College Big Band, directed by John Gove
6pm - Musicians Warehouse Big Band featuring vocalist Linda Middlebusher, directed by Terry Luse

Jazz Mass
Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph, 80 S. Market St.
4:30pm; free

Music After Dark, San Salvador Street
8pm - J.C. Smith Blues Band

Jazz Society Jam Session
Pete Escovedo's Latin Jazz Club; 9pm; $5/$10

The Jazz Club
Waves Smokehouse & Saloon, 65 Post St.
Late-night jams; 6pm-1:30 am; free

Sunday, Aug. 8

The Jazz Club
Waves Smokehouse & Saloon, 65 Post St.
Jazz jams all day; 10am-7:30pm; free

Jazz Mass
Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph, 80 S. Market St.
11am; free

'From Woodshed to Bandstand: Making It to the Big Show'
Hotel Montgomery, 211 S. First St; 11am; free
A panel discussion about making it in the music industry

Main Stage, Plaza de Cesar Chavez
Noon - Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir
2pm - Lizz Wright
4pm - Terence Blanchard
6pm - Ray Barretto Sextet

Latin Stage, San Fernando and First streets
1pm - Nosotros
3pm - John Santos and Machete
5pm - Mark Levine and the Latin Tinge
7pm - Afromantra

Salsa Stage, San Fernando and Market streets
12:30pm - Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble of San Francisco
2:30pm - Wild Mango
4:30pm - Benny Velarde Super Combo
6:30pm - Charanson

San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio
12:30pm - Kim Nalley Quintet
2:30pm - Dave Ellis Quintet
4:30pm - Peter Bernstein Quartet
6:30pm - Jane Bunnett

Smith Dobson Stage, 400 S. First St.
12:30pm - Lifetime Achievers
2:30pm - Sasha Dobson Quartet
4:30pm - Sylvia Cuenca Quartet featuring Eddie Henderson
6:30pm - Virginia Mayhew

Blues Stage, San Fernando Street and Almaden Boulevard
12:30pm - Johnny Smith and the Alias Smith Band
2:30pm - Jeffrey Halford and the Healers
4:30pm - Julian Vaught Blues Band featuring Ella Pennewell
6:30pm - Chris Cain

Youth Stage, inside Tech Museum
Noon - Buchser Middle School Big Band
1pm - Jazz Goes to College Latin Ensemble with special guest John Santos, directed by Wayne Wallace and David Flores
2pm - LA Big Band, directed by David Ladd
3pm - Jazz Goes to College Vocal Soloists

Big Band Stage, Post and Market streets
1pm - De Anza Daddios Jazz Ensemble
2:30pm - Bob Saul Orchestra
4pm - Touch of Brass, directed by Ed Morrison
6pm - Full Spectrum Big Band, directed by Roger Levinson

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From the July 28-August 3, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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