Lizz Wright’s seventh album, Holding Space, is a glorious declaration of independence. It’s the first release on her artist-centric new label Blues & Greens Records, a platform that allows musicians to retain the masters and rights to their music. Artistically, the project presents Wright at her most elemental, backed by a working combo with guitarist Chris Bruce, bassist Ben Zwerin, keyboardist Bobby Ray Sparks II, and drummer Ivan Edwards.
Recorded in Berlin in the summer of 2018 at the conclusion of a European tour, the album captures Wright in full flight, focusing on music from 2017’s Grace while also drawing from her previous Concord release, 2015’s Freedom & Surrender, and her project with the WDR Big Band. Since the release of her star-making 2003 debut Salt, Wright has tried on several instrumental settings. Her producers tended to gussy up her songs with an array of keyboards and string instruments; the results didn’t always serve her well. Holding Space is Wright unadulterated, from Allison Russell’s carved-oak “Barley” to a lusciously slow version of k.d. lang’s “Wash Me Clean.”
Wright’s own work as a songwriter is also well represented, with the rapturously folk-rocking “Somewhere Down the Mystic” and swampy anthem “The New Game.” Most striking is when Wright seizes a song indelibly linked to another artist and makes it her own, gently wrestling Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights” from Glen Campbell and positively pocketing Neil Young’s “Old Man.” (Have two artists ever offered greater tonal contrast?)
Wright’s voice is one of the marvels of the contemporary scene, but it’s her preternatural calm that sets her apart. Rather than evoking the Black church’s ecstatic fervor, she channels her intensity into the density of her sound. Her phrasing flows imperturbably. She’s a rock, and with Holding Space she’s building an edifice of her own.