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Jazz Review
Artist: Lizz Wright & Terence Blanchard
Performance date: August 20, 2003
Publication: New York Times
JAZZ REVIEW; A Style Radiates a Relaxed Precision

By BEN RATLIFF

The singer Lizz Wright is 23, and she can remind you of the alloy of two different people that Steve Martin played in ''All of Me.'' She moves around a club as if she were just a person who came to see a show, and onstage she's unpretentious, verging on shy. But when she begins singing, her voice immediately focuses into a deeply relaxed state of precision; even when she said a musician's name after a solo, the two words radiated poise.

Her set at the Blue Note on Tuesday, the first night of a double bill through tomorrow with the trumpeter Terence Blanchard's band, had little of the overripe feeling that characterizes her recently released first album, ''Salt'' (Verve). Her repertory, as of now, includes originals of which she was coauthor, some songs by the drummer and composer Brian Blade, some spirituals, theater songs and jazz standards.

You can find ''Salt'' in the jazz department of record stores because it's on a jazz label and because jazz musicians (including the pianist Jon Cowherd, her musical director) play behind her. But she doesn't show much evidence of being any sort of traditional jazz singer -- rhythmically, gesturally, technically. She's a pop-gospel-folk-R & B kind of person, with a voice that abhors overstatement.

Categorization doesn't matter: Ms. Wright's gifts are what they are. It only became an issue in jazz standards like ''Nature Boy,'' to which her talents and voice don't seem suited: she stiffened a little in the role. But there are many other roles for her to fill. In ''As Soon as I Get Home,'' a rearranged song from the musical ''The Wiz,'' her diction was so perfect that it became nearly distracting. Words emerged perfectly formed and rounded, with final consonants subtly pronounced at the end (''hoooome-uh'').

What she doesn't have yet is a group sound that will help define her. The remarkable Mr. Blade, who plays drums on the record, wasn't in the performing band. The folkish quality of the music seems to want a guitarist with a warm, harmony-rich sound, whereas John Hart merely played his parts dutifully.

Mr. Blanchard followed with his new sextet, full of good young musicians. But this, too, is a band looking for its center of gravity. A double bill doesn't afford much stage time, and a couple of overlong solos nearly sucked the air out of this short set. The West African guitarist Lionel Loueke, who is from Benin, uses finger tapping and electronic techniques that add something new to Mr. Blanchard's straight-ahead jazz context. But while soloing through ''Azania,'' he made his electric guitar sound like an African thumb piano, then got into a long-winded show of sound sampling. It overextended a fragile idea.

Much better was ''Bounce/Let's Go Off,'' an open-ended duet between trumpet and bass that grew out of Vicente Archer's bass solo. In it, Mr. Blanchard showed what a stunning trumpeter he can be, alternating clarion notes with bent and half-valved ones, running fragments of lines through different keys. He seemed free, and let open space shine through a reflective improvisation.

Published: 08 - 23 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section B , Column 3 , Page 12

 

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