The Wright Stuff 

Salty and sweet music from jazz singer Lizz Wright.

"Never be afraid to love/Never be afraid to just be/Cast away the chains of doubt/Have the courage to be free," Lizz Wright sings on "Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly," the first song on her brilliant debut album, Salt. The song, written by Chick Corea and Neville Potter, is associated with Flora Purim, but Wright makes it her own with smooth, confident phrasing. Taking a jazz standard or well-known tune and putting an original stamp on it doesn't happen too often these days, but the 23-year-old singer makes a habit of it on Salt. She handles the Mongo Santamaria-Oscar Brown Jr. classic "Afro Blue" with deceptive ease, revives the traditional spiritual "Walk with Me, Lord" with grace and style, and shows she's at home in ballad territory on "Soon as I Get Home" (from the Broadway production The Wiz).

Over the phone from New York, where she's in town for a couple of shows at the Blue Note, Wright explains why, to her, songs are like clothing -- something you wear. "You put yourself in something and walk around a little while and get into it," she says. "Learn the color, learn the shape of it. See what you're like inside of it." That's part of Wright's creative process, a way of accessing her inner muse: "There's a certain kind of depth, a certain kind of letting go I like to experience when I sing a song, and that's not gonna happen unless I've walked around in it for a little while." Before she performs a song live, she says, "I just kind of keep it with me for a while, and I listen to it over and over. I sing it to myself. I like to do that for some time."

Wright is also a songwriter. Salt features several of her own compositions, revealing her gift for lyrical imagery. The title track, a dead ringer for a torchy ballad from the '50s or '60s, rings with positivity -- its words are filled with emotional sustenance: "How can you lose your song/When you've sung it for so long/How can you forget your dance/When that dance is all you've ever had?" The song offers hope, reminding us we are fortified to deal with life's challenges. "Just like the salt that's in the stew/It's all a part of you/One thing that life can't do/It can't take your song from you."

Wright insists she's still learning how to write songs, which, to her, come out of a need to "express something," to "feel something," or to "believe something." This old soul inhabiting a young woman's body realizes that the process of creating art can transcend the artist, even if she doesn't quite understand why. "Music is kinda like something that takes over the musician, and can lead you to places you didn't plan for." For instance, Wright never planned on becoming a jazz singer. Raised in church by a minister father and a gospel-singer mother, she started performing as a young child. But she gravitated toward jazz "because it was a platform where I could talk about other subjects in life, or even talk about the divine, but just in different ways." She uses words like "sacredness" when describing jazz, a music she hopes more young people will embrace. "I believe there's a lot there for young people, and I hope that some of my work will inspire that realization. Because it's really beautiful music."

That should be reason enough, but if you need more convincing, go see Wright Tuesday and Wednesday, January 20 and 21, at Yoshi's (510-238-9200, Yoshis.com), where she and her band will be playing two shows a night at 8 and 10 p.m.

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