"Dreaming Wide Awake"
Producer Craig Street helped Cassandra Wilson create a new genre, Americana-jazz vocals, on her groundbreaking 1993-95 albums, "Blue Light 'Til Dawn" and "New Moon Daughter." Those discs -- with their unusual taste in standards (Neil Young, Hank Williams, Robert Johnson) and instrumentation (country-blues guitar, congas, mandolin) -- formed the template for Street's subsequent work with Norah Jones, k.d. lang, Holly Cole, Toshi Reagon and, now, Lizz Wright.
But this new genre can accommodate as many different kinds of singers as any other strain of jazz, and on her second album, "Dreaming Wide Awake," Wright distinguishes herself from Wilson, Jones and the rest. The 25-year-old Georgian has a deep, smoky contralto that favors rounded, sustained syllables that blur one into the other. Her leisurely delivery can suggest either swooning romance or yearning prayer, and it puts a very different spin on songs such as Herb Alpert's "A Taste of Honey," Madonna's "Stop" and Neil Young's "Old Man."
She transforms Ella Jenkins's children's song "Wake Up, Little Sparrow" into a bluesy lament, and she brings a smoldering lust to "Hit the Ground," which she co-wrote with Jones's guitarist Jesse Harris and Reagon. The band features jazz great Bill Frisell, Wilson's percussionist Jeff Haynes, lang's bassist David Piltch, Ollabelle's keyboardist Glenn Patscha and Frisell's frequent guitar partner Greg Leisz, and they all support Wright with sympathetic restraint.
-- Geoffrey Himes
Appearing Sunday at the Rams Head Tavern and Monday at the Birchmere.