Mahalia. Patti. Gladys. The soul and jazz singer Ledisi has lately starred as every of those iconic Black ladies on the large and small screens. But Nina Simone is the musician who saved her life nearly 20 years in the past.
“I first heard Nina sometime in 2003,” Ledisi, 49, lately recalled in a video interview from her Los Angeles dwelling, carrying a black long-sleeve T-shirt that learn “Spiritual Gangster.” “I was on my rocking chair on my porch in East Oakland, and I was depressed. This was after I recorded two albums, but I had bills, just got divorced, hated the area, and felt like I was not growing. So I decided, ‘OK. This is the day. I’m going to leave this earth.’”
As she sat considering her dying, a music on the radio interrupted: Simone’s model of “Trouble in Mind.”
“It jumped me out of my skin,” Ledisi stated enthusiastically, whereas imitating Simone’s palms on the piano and quoting the lyrics she sang: “Trouble in mind, I’m blue/But I won’t be blue always/’Cause the sun is gonna shine/In my backdoor some day.” Ledisi stated she “just cried and cried, and as the song kept playing, I started feeling better.” She knew she was going to survive that day. “That’s when Nina and I really met.”
On Friday, Ledisi pays tribute to the girl who introduced her again from despair with “Ledisi Sings Nina,” an album that options seven of Simone’s hottest songs redone in orchestral, jazz and pop preparations. They showcase each the range and depth of Simone’s musicianship and the breathtaking vary and attain of Ledisi’s personal voice.
Ledisi’s profession, now 20 years deep, felt predestined. Born Ledisi Young in New Orleans, she comes from a lengthy line of Black musicians. Her mom, Nyra Dynese, was a soul singer; her stepfather, Joseph Pierce III, a drummer; and her organic father, Larry Saunders, was each the son of the blues artist Johnny Ace and a singer in his personal proper, greatest recognized for his single “On the Real Side” that he launched because the Prophet of Soul.
When Ledisi first appeared onstage with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra at age eight, it was each a revelation and a continuation. Five years after, her household moved to Oakland, the place she later began her funk financial institution, Anibade. By 2000, she independently launched her first solo album, “Soulsinger: The Revival,” and its follow-up, “Feeling Orange but Sometimes Blue,” which garnered robust important acclaim, a core fan base and an eventual document take care of Verve.
Pigeonholed as a jazz vocalist, Ledisi was each extremely revered and area of interest in an business that didn’t actually know the way to market her. Appearing on BET’s first televised “Black Girls Rock!” ceremony in 2010, she and the R&B sensations Marsha Ambrosius, Jill Scott and Kelly Price stole the present with their efficiency of Simone’s anthemic “Four Women.” Ledisi had just one request: that she deal with the music’s climactic ending about Peaches, the fiery character on this epic story of 4 Black ladies, every distinguished by her age, pores and skin colour and resistance to her racial and sexual trauma.
When Ledisi acquired her 34 seconds, she “made it count,” she stated, belting “My name is Peaches!” with a lot fierce willpower and subversive spirit that she has made many return appearances on the BET tribute stage.
“I’ve been Nina-ing since,” Ledisi defined. In 2017, she included songs from Simone’s repertoire into her live performance with the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO Pops) on the Kennedy Center. The subsequent 12 months, she headlined a tribute to Simone in New Orleans with the drummer Adonis Rose and his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, which she adopted up with “Nina & Me” on the Apollo Theater a month later. In 2019, she starred in her personal one-woman present, “The Legend of Little Girl Blue,” about herself, her mom and Simone; and a few months later, she paid homage once more by accompanying the conductor Jules Buckley and the Metropole Orkest at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Just final December, PBS aired her first TV particular, “Ledisi Live: A Tribute to Nina Simone.”
“This project and this journey with Nina has just changed my life,” Ledisi stated.Credit…Erik Carter for The New York Times
Produced by her long-term collaborator Rex Rideout, “Ledisi Sings Nina” is her 10th studio album, and her second on her personal label, Listen Back. It’s arriving at a second of what many see as long-overdue recognition: After receiving 13 Grammy nominations over time, she earned her first statue, for greatest conventional R&B efficiency, in March for “Anything for You.” But it additionally marks one other milestone: Ledisi’s return to her roots as a soul and jazz singer who within the late ’90s offered her CDs instantly to her followers after exhibits or in document shops.
“This is a full-circle moment for her,” Rideout stated in a cellphone interview, his enthusiasm evident. “Back then, she was fiercely independent and didn’t have a major-label deal but she was selling 40,000 to 50,000 records on her own, through consignment out of her trunk.” He went on, “Now you have streaming, and social media and artists can connect directly to the audience. She was kind of ahead of her time.”
John Legend remembered being blown away by Ledisi in 2002, when he opened for her on the New York membership S.O.B.’s. “As a contemporary vocalist, there’s almost no one I can think of in the world that sings as skillfully as she does,” he stated in an interview. “In terms of her range, dexterity, clarity, versatility, she can do anything she wants. She’s one of the great singers in the world, period.”
Ledisi’s voice is highly effective, however technically, it isn’t very like her idol’s. Simone is thought for her husky tone and restricted octave vary, whereas Ledisi exudes heat onstage and covers 4 octaves, simply including exuberant hollers, subtle scats, sultry rasps or quiet harmonies.
But when Buckley needed a vocalist with the grit and gravitas that he related to Simone to sing atop the Metropole Orkest, a jazz and pop orchestra primarily based within the Netherlands, Ledisi was at all times his first selection.
“I was really trying to find an artist who could balance the power of a huge orchestra behind them, and lift that orchestra and the audience up as well,” he stated. “She was able to shed a light on Nina’s work but not as an imitation, but as something fresh and new. This is because she’s not just replicating, but doing her own thing.”
“I’m Going Back Home,” sometimes carried out as an upbeat gospel tune, will get remodeled on “Ledisi Sings Nina” into a rollicking celebration.
“It’s part of our tradition here to end with a song that’s a New Orleans second line to which we can dance out, leave the stage, and go into the audience and come back,” stated Rose, of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. Ledisi “just brings the spiritual and intangible components to the music and her stage performance.”
While Mahalia, Patti and Gladys are additionally a a part of her, Ledisi stated she believes her musical and appearing profession would have been unimaginable with out Simone.
“I want to stay loving those parts of me because if I don’t get to exercise them, they just go away,” she stated. “But, this project and this journey with Nina has just changed my life. It allowed me the freedom I was looking for. After this, I don’t have to say, ‘Don’t put me in your box.’ The music will say it for you.”