For acclaimed jazz vocalist Lizz Wright, her latest album “Grace” offered a new opportunity to explore where she comes from: the south.
“I really wanted a record that was a picture of my life in the south and all the beautiful relationships I’ve made, even outside my family and extended family,” says Wright, who performs 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10, at the Exit Zero Jazz Festival at Cape May Convention Hall.
Wright joins a festival line up that features fellow headliners Gregory Porter, who has just released the album “Nat King Cole & Me,” and longtime super group Fourplay, along with more than a dozen other acts, including Etienne Charles and Creole Soul, Brian Blade Fellowship, Arturo O’Farrill Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra and Ranky Tanky.
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Wright, who was born and raised in Georgia, drew inspiration for her new album from both her past and present — she now owns a home on 30 acres in the mountains outside of Asheville, N.C.
“I wanted a place with a wood-burning stove where I could write songs,” she recalls. “The gifts I found were in the people who lived near to me.”
But the isolation and comfort of her home in North Carolina has not cut her off to the rest of the world and the tumultuous political climate. Among her closest friends in Asheville are a 93-year-old white neighbor and her son. When they invited her to attend their family reunion, Wright, who is African-American, was concerned whether she would be welcomed.
“What I discovered when I showed up for that reunion changed my life,” she says. “In this time of upheaval and social discord, I couldn’t be more in love with the real spirit of the south. I wanted to embrace that out loud for my own benefit.”
To get in the proper frame of mind for the record, Wright and a friend, photographer Jesse Kitt, took a road trip through the region. “I needed to go to the south and needed to feel it for myself,” she says.
Afterwards, Wright teamed up with veteran producer and North Carolina native Joe Henry to assemble a collection that includes covers of songs by Ray Charles, Allen Toussaint, Nina Simone, k.d. lang, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Bob Dylan, as well as one new song, which Wright co-wrote with Maia Sharp (“All The Way Here”).
Perhaps the best-known track is “Southern Nights,” which Wright adapted to be more in line with the slower original version by Allen Toussaint than the up-tempo cover by Glen Campbell.
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To find her own take, Wright started by listening to the original and working from there.
“Somewhere being a musician and my father being an innate storyteller and all the things he read to me, I listened to the story as an experience stripped out by itself,” she says. “Sometimes, I feel like I’m not the voice for this, and sometimes I will hold onto it for later. If I’m in love with it, I can do anything.”
Having recorded six albums, Wright faces the challenging task of creating a set that balances her new and old material.
“It sure is tricky to put it all together,” she says. “You find that different regions fall in love with an aspect of you. You know it walking in — you remember what they feel like, and are hoping you can weave in these new things.”
For a festival setting like Exit Zero, Wright shifts the dynamic even more.
“Every now and then, you can pull out a wild card and do something crazy,” she says. “You need to keep the pace up and have a lot of fluidity and never stop.”
But after some two decades of performing, Wright admits she’s “wrong as soon as I make a rule,” and she not only embraces that sentiment, but likes it when she’s proven wrong.
“I intentionally do one thing or a couple of things that I think are wrong, because I want to get to know people,” she says. “I’m singing, but I’m completely inquisitive of who the people are and how they’re thinking.”