Lizz Wright continues her genre-defying journey with Fellowship, a nod to her roots in gospel on the one hand and her gospel of eclecticism on the other. Beginning with the ecumenical Me’Shell N’Degeocello-penned title track, Fellowship is not a traditional genre exercise. While emphasizing a healthy dose of the rousing hymnody Wright grew up singing in the church (she is, indeed, the daughter of a Georgia pastor), the album borrows from the decidedly secular catalogs of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Gladys Knight, topped by even more modern material from Joan Wasser, of the indie-rock act, Joan as Police Woman. Wright says, “I wanted to do some songs from home and some straight-up gospel, but I also had some other things I want to share that I see as sacred.’”
Wright had taken some time off last year to stay close to home and get back in touch with non-musical interests—including graduating from culinary school. Deciding 2010 was time for a new album, looking homeward quickly provided focus. “I went into this project thinking that it was a good time to sing the songs that I needed in my life and that I felt like my people needed. The gospel is always in my heart and veins, and the voices of my family singing those stories is always with me and at any time I can visit that place and come back with the riches quickly.”
There was never any question that Fellowship would be a mixture of standards known to the African-American church along with some redefining choices. “I definitely needed to represent where I came from, but I also needed to say something now. When I was considering possibilities for covers, I thought it would be great if I approached the work of contemporaries like Joan and Me’shell.
“Compared to my previous albums, Fellowship was made rather quickly, but because it evolved within the gathering of generous and gracious friends like Toshi Reagon, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and Angelique Kidjo, the elements came to life, into focus, and I had a clear direction after a short period.”
Growing up in the Pentecostal church, Wright wasn’t allowed to listen to popular music. Oddly—or maybe serendipitously—the historic night when she really made the leap from her early musical life to her present one involved putting a “secular” spin on a spiritual.
“There are some circles you could draw here that are real. I was blessed to be able to work on this album with the pianist that I had my very first gig with, one of my best friends, Kenny Banks. He’s one of the ministers of music at a Methodist church in Atlanta, and was right there when I was 19, watching me make the transition from only gospel to that first night where I sat in at a club on Peachtree Street downtown. I sang, ‘Amazing Grace’—but as a blues. This song that I had known all my life just came roaring out of me with anger and sadness and all my curiosity,” she adds laughing.
“The funny thing about the transition from only gospel to jazz is that I felt that jazz had a familiar sacredness to it. In all of my adventures in music, I’ve been drawn in by sparks of the familiar inside of the unfamiliar. For example, when I first heard what people were calling the blues, I was taken aback, because I had heard that sound all my life. That was how the mothers sang in church.”
Wright has been the recipient of nonstop critical acclaim and ever-increasing audiences ever since her Verve debut, Salt, in 2003. But she’s confounded expectations along the way about what should be expected of an artist who’s known for topping the jazz charts but is far from most people's idea of a traditional jazz singer. “I don’t know how to aim at groups. Songs carry stories that I need to tell, and I just pick them up and sing. Music has allowed me the opportunity to ask a lot of questions, to open and reconcile lot of things. My life is broad and very open, so my seemingly eclectic choices are also natural.”
Wright openly reflects on her motivations. “It’s time for me to think about what helps and heals somebody else. And sometimes it’s good to sing simple things that people need, besides pieces that are more intriguing or that have great poetry. That’s where I found myself this time around. There are a lot of tools in here. Sometimes we have songs to climb up on to get over obstacles.” Prepare to get lifted!