Lizz Wright has an alto to cut butter and melt leather. She proved it to a sold-out crowd at Yoshi’s in Oakland on June 29. There was not an empty seat in the house as she strode onstage in a floor-brushing, black long-sleeve dress (to hide burn scars from pandemic cooking exploits, she later joked).
She first broke into “I Remember, I Believe,” the audience padding the silence after every line with empathic hums, like a sermon. For the rest of the night, every song met with a room of snaps, claps and moans. Her voice sunk into “Walk With Me, Lord” as fluidly as it soared. Wright’s earliest musical training was as a singer at her father’s church; but this time, there was no room for doubt.
Kenny Banks Sr. played at a right angle to a black Steinway grand and a mahogany organ, the rhythmic dissonance of his hammering one-note riff dissolving into the bluesy harmony of a swing refrain. This, with Wright’s heady timbre, sustained a note so unbearably rousing that there was nothing left for it to do but fade.
From that fade, she swung into the jazz standard “Give Me the Simple Life.” The way she sang “Some like the high road/ I’ll take the low road/ free from grief and strife,” the high road couldn’t hold any grief. Banks bumped his notes and bent his rhythm to a pitch on a level with Thelonius Monk.
During “The Nearness of You,” even her whispers resounded. She said that she first learnt the next song, “Jazz (Ain’t Nothing But Soul),” while working at Geico. It was a feat to imagine her selling insurance by day and slurping ramen to the Betty Carter standard by night.
Banks pedaled and prodded a funk organ solo for the Candi Staton song “Sweet Feeling” — the riff had the room rattling the tables three bars in, while Wright rang a silver tambourine. As she purred and snarled “Come home to me, baby, I hope you will,” one ambitious man in the audience yelled: “If you keep singing like that, I will!”
And back to the Steinway. Banks stomped, rattled and rolled it as Wright led the room through a call-and-response rendition of “Barley,” with a hand raised to the ceiling. On the organ, he drove out a rippling solo of fits, starts and soft-beating drones like a church musician on Quaaludes. As Wright cooed “Seems I’m Never Tired Lovin’ You,” Banks perfectly mirrored her wooly trills and she his woody tones, like a man and woman possessed.
From this crescendo, Wright launched into a slow and measured delivery of “Without a Song.” The end refrain — “Man ain’t no good at all without a song” — was cheered on with irrepressible shouts of “Yes!” Her final song, “Freedom,” had a friend named Keyanna Hutchinson on electric guitar, an Oakland local on bongos, and Wright herself on tambourine. Banks’ piano lined her plaintive “Who’s gonna stand up for you?” with jazzily stately chords. Wright broke off the beat with a booming and controlled “I will,” and suddenly, the song was over.
The end, any end at all, was inconceivable. Sure enough, she strode back; it seemed as though the spotlight still holding her place was steaming. She asked the audience if an encore was okay, the audience sounded their wall-rattling assent, and she belted “No More Will Run” from a place of hopeful sorrow and live-wire weariness.
Lizz Wright melts any line between the sensual and the sanctified, yet solid earth is where she finds common ground with all humanity. When she first moved to her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, she found soil the great equalizer between herself and neighbors of all stripes; no matter one’s background and conviction, earth was the universal source of shelter and sustenance. For one night at Yoshi’s, her voice took earth’s place.
Contact Selen Ozturk at [email protected].