CD Reviews July/August 2003:

REVIEWS by Willard Manus


Remember the name, Lizz Wright. The 23-year-old singer/vocalist, who just released her debut album, SALT, is the next queen of song.

With her exquisite voice, deepfelt affirmation of life and love, and skill at writing lyrics, Wright looks a sure bet to one day don the mantle worn by the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Diane Krall.

A Georgia native, Wright is a minister's daughter who started out singing gospel in church. She shows those roots on one of the SALT'S twelve cuts, "Walk With Me, Lord." Backed by Kenny Banks on the Hammond B-3 and John Hart's acoustic guitar, Wright delivers a soulful rendition of this sacred tune. No shouting, no raucous rocking, just her rich, warm, creamy voice running up and down the scales as she delivers an impassioned cry for help with simplicity and sincerity.

Wright also wrote five of the songs on the Verve release, all of which reflect her positive (but never smarmy) feelings about life, nature and the mysteries and rewards of love. Ballad singing seems to be her strength, but she also shows an appreciation of Latin jazz (and her African roots) on "Afro Blue," the classic Mongo Santamaria tune. Terreon Gully and Jeff Haynes supply the Latin percussion, Danilo Perez the understated but effective piano.

Tommy LiPuma, Brian Blade and Jon Cowherd (the latter two also back Wright up on drums and piano, respectively) produced the CD with much skill, allowing all of Lizz Wright's remarkable qualities as a singer to shine through.

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Concord Records has dipped into its thousand-strong catalogue for two of its juiciest plums, Trio and Overseas Special, which the company has re-mastered and re-released as STRAIGHT AHEAD. The 2-CD package features Monty Alexander, Ray Brown and Herb Ellis, the famous drumless trio which ruled the jazz roost in the 1980s.

Disc one (Trio) is a studio recording that emphasizes the inventive, pristine talents of the three musicians, two of whom (Brown and Ellis) once backed up Oscar Peterson, a pianist of phenomenal proportions and dazzling technique. Peterson's emphasis on complex arrangements, strong soloing and respect for melody is reflected in the way Brown and Ellis approach each of the nine tunes. With the Jamaican-born Alexander letting his fingers fly over the keys in captivating, Caribbean-oriented fashion, Brown and Ellis provide the solid, finely meshed under-pinnings.

Although the trio tends to favor slower tempos (which allow for laid-back and expressive soloing), they are capable of shifting into high gear, as on "Sweet Georgia Brown." They also show a bluesy and witty side on "Captain Bill."

Disc Two (Overseas Special) was recorded live in Japan and offers six cuts, commencing with "But Not For Me," the Johnny Mandel ballad which gets a virtuosic workout from Ellis, whose improvisations take your breath away.

Alexander, Brown and Ellis also show their compositional skills, especially on "F.S.R.," a tune Brown wrote in tribute to Sonny Rollins. All three men kick in with fiery solos and a hard-driving tempo on "C.C. Rider."

STRAIGHT AHEAD is without question one of the leading jazz CDs of the year.