The safest musical territory is bound by genre. The most gratifying is not. Recently some of the most exhilarating music has come from vocalists who have ventured out of the jazz bin into singer/songwriter territory and created an emerging hybrid that defies definition. These singers are finding and interpreting thoughtfully written and beautifully fleshed out songs. Some are their own, some showcase emerging songwriters, some are reinventions of more familiar fare. Norah Jones is the most obvious example. Diana Krall startled some of her old fans and won over some new ones last year with her brilliant The Girl In The Other Room. With Dreaming Wide Awake Lizz Wright has stepped firmly into this territory. She deserves, and is beginning to get, a similar level of acclaim. With music this deep and irresistible it is inevitable that her fans-in-waiting will find her.
The title is descriptive of the listening experience. This is calming and peaceful music with deep and edgy undercurrents. Her voice is so expressive and her interpretations are so singular that passive listening is impossible. She draws you in. The arrangements are sparse, with acoustic guitar upfront and lots of Rhodes and B3 keyboard shadings. But even when combined with songs that are benchmarks of other eras, this makes the project sound intimate and timeless, not retro. Take “Get Together,” the oldies radio staple, or “Old Man,” Neil Young's open-mic night standard. She sings from a perspective that changes their context from folky sing-alongs to heartfelt cautionary tales. She thoroughly reinvents “A Taste Of Honey,” bringing a sense distance and longing enhanced by Delta blues-tinged guitar. From there she jumps straight into “Stop,” popularized as Madonna's dance/pop hit "Don't Tell Me," turning it into a jazzy meditation. Beyond the familiar, Dreaming Wide Awake showcases the talents of some of our most gifted emerging songwriters, including Joe Henry, Carlos Henderson, Jesse Harris and Lizz herself. The lyrical perspective she brings to love songs is startlingly original. “Hit the Ground,” “Trouble,” and the title track will dazzle even the most jaded hearts and ears.
When music is being compartmentalized and classified there is a category called “Triple-A” or Adult Album Alternative. It is an elusive niche that is evocative of the original AOR (freeform progressive rock) approach. The implication is that there is such a thing as "alternative" for adults... intelligent, compelling music that goes beyond recycling boomer nostalgia. As a radio format it is on the verge of extinction. As an all-encompassing musical genre it could be the saving grace. These artists who carry the label “jazz” have just begun to enter that realm. Producer Craig Street is on the visionary frontlines here. Besides this project he has worked with Cassandra Wilson, Norah Jones, Gipsy Kings, k.d. lang, Holly Cole, and Meshell N'degocello - all musicians whose careers have been defined by integrity and originality. Lizz Wright is the latest to enter the fold. Dreaming Wide Awake is pure motivation to dispense with categories and just listen to the music. It is one of a kind-a stunning collection of songs that deserves a place in any music lover's collection.
- Shannon West