BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
MINNEAPOLIS – When Lizz Wright performed at the Dakota Jazz Club on April 19, 2016, a special guest was in the crowd at the downtown Minneapolis venue – Prince.
Hers was the last live performance the legendary singer ever witnessed before his untimely death two days later.
This spring, Wright returned to the venue on April 20 – a date the venue was happy to accommodate – to perform, somewhat in honor of Prince.
“I remember being in this room,” she said, sitting in the empty Dakota a few hours before her performance in April, “and we just finished soundcheck and got the news that he was coming. This kind of wave just came over the band and I was like, we can’t overreact…Everybody saw him (that night) but me! To tell you the truth, I was just trying to stay anchored and just make sure I got to that place where I’m loose. It took great focus, because he’s quite a presence and he’s very deeply revered. I’m grateful for the experience.”
The native of small-town Georgia (Hahira, near Valdosta) who attended Georgia State University and was part of Atlanta’s vocal group Spirit, in the early ‘00s, now splits her time between the mountains of western North Carolina and Chicago.
She’s currently on tour to support her sixth album, “Grace,” which was already recorded at the time of our interview in April, but just released Sept. 15.
Wright will swing through Atlanta – where plenty of family and friends will be in attendance – on Sept. 22.
A warm and gracious presence, Wright said the new album is about her Southern roots and showcases “my take on Americana.”
In addition to her interpretations of songs by Ray Charles (“What Would I Do Without You”) and Allen Toussaint (a winsome “Southern Nights”), Wright also tackles Nina Simone’s “Seems I’m Never Tired of Lovin’ You,” with an appearance by choir singers from local Atlanta churches under the direction of longtime collaborator Kenny Banks Sr.
Wright describes her upbringing as filled with music in a family that reveled in song.
“My father was a pastor pretty much my entire childhood and we had these mini services at home – we called them family devotions,” she said. “And we would sing and act our parables. A lot of what’s become my style of music has a lot to do with my dad’s very signature idea of early childhood development.”
Her musical path has traversed jazz and gospel, and with producer Joe Henry, whom she calls “one of my favorite writers,” Wright used her silky, smoky voice to convey the essence of her Southern heritage on the new record.
But, she says, “Grace,” whose title track comes from Rose Cousins, is not a change in direction.
“This is not a statement about what I want to be in the future,” she says. “This is a response to the present.”
With Leeda “Lyric” Jones. 8 p.m. Sept. 22. $41.Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave. NE, Atlanta. 1-877-987-6487, www.ticketfly.com.