Though still a few years shy of 40, Lizz Wright has reached a musical maturity—stylistically, interpretively, emotionally—that places her at the forefront of American jazz vocalists. On Grace, her sixth studio album, Wright raises her richly burnished voice heavenward for an inspired exploration of spiritualism. Joined by five top-tier bandmates—keyboardist Kenny Banks, bassist David Piltch, drummer Jay Bellerose and two guitarists, Chris Bruce and Marvin Sewell—she shapes a 10-track program that blends traditional and contemporary spirituals with reimagined pop selections from the likes of Dylan, Ray Charles and k.d. lang.
Though “Singing in My Soul’ is indelibly associated with Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Wright makes it her own with a rollicking, countrified reading. She adds a ramrod treatment of Birds of Chicago’s “Barley,” a paean to unshakeable faith, and an aching rendition of Canadian folk singer-songwriter Rose Cousins’ confessional “Grace.” While Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand,” Charles’ “What Would I Do Without You,” lang’s “Wash Me Clean” and the Nina Simone-associated “Seems I’m Never Tired Lovin’ You” remain true to their secular foundations, all can also be construed as messages to a higher power. Shifting to an earthier hallowedness, Wright explores the pull of her deep-South roots with “Stars Fell on Alabama,” gorgeously propelled by guest guitarist Marc Ribot, and a hushed, twilit “Southern Nights.” She closes with the album’s sole original, again straddling the secular/spiritual border with her sagely self-aware “All the Way Here.”