The Bay Area was never big enough to contain Ledisi’s voluminous talent, but the R&B star credits her formative years here with providing everything she needed to take on the world. Returning to town on Wednesday for a gig at the Warfield celebrating the release of her luscious new album The Truth (Verve), she’s a bona fide soul queen who hasn’t forgotten where she came from.
“I’m so grateful for the Bay Area,” Ledisi said during a recent phone conversation from the tour bus with her band heading to a gig in Arizona. “I got some great training there being a performer. If I could please those audiences in theater, churchy, jazz and R&B settings, if I could please all those listeners, I was ready after that. I had my training. The Bay Area kicked my butt.”
A supremely versatile singer, Ledisi draws from a vast swath of African-American music, infusing soul melisma into standards while using smooth R&B grooves as a springboard for improvisational flights. Like her previous release, the Grammy-nominated Pieces of Me, The Truth only reveals one small facet of what Ledisi can do. But in concert she lets loose, scatting Charlie Parker’s blues “Now’s the Time” with the harmonic sophistication of a bebop saxophonist, or delivering Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” with scorching intensity.
Just as important as her stylistic range and huge, multi-octave voice is Ledisi’s mercurial stage presence, honed during an 11-year run in the North Beach cabaret institution Beach Blanket Babylon. Playful and goofy one moment, she can switch on a soul diva persona if a song requires. Ultimately, she seeks to turn audiences into confidantes as she provides romantic advice, affirmations and cautionary tales, all set to the most seductive beats.
She took her affirmations from the stage to the printed page with her 2012 book Better Than Alright: Finding Peace, Love & Power. The project was part of a collaboration with Essence, a natural fit as the magazine produces the huge annual Essence Music Festival in New Orleans (she’s one of the vocalists featured on three different Essence cover photos this month, along with Erykah Badu and Solange).
“The book is partially self help, but it’s more me describing these journeys I’ve been on,” Ledisi said. “I’ve met some extraordinary people. Those experiences have helped me become a stronger person. I wrote it for other women to feel empowered.”
Born Ledisi Anibade Young in New Orleans, Ledisi was weaned on soul music. She grew up listening to her mother sing with a popular Crescent City cover band Carnova. When the family moved to Oakland in the early '80s, she began studying opera in the Young Musicians Program, the U.C. Berkeley program that provides budding musicians with conservatory training.
She first started gaining notice in the early '90s with the band Slide 5, but came into her own when she founded Anibade, a group fluent in jazz, funk and hip hop that matched her intense stage energy. Her rip roaring performances won her a Bammie nomination for Best Jazz Vocalist and a 1999 Goldie Award from the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She cemented her reputation as a powerful new voice with the release of Soulsinger, now an out-of-print collector’s item.
Looking for greater emotional range, she decided to record a limited edition jazz-tinged CD Feeling Orange But Sometimes Blue featuring her working band and guests stars like pianist Mark Levine and percussionists Pete Escovedo and Karl Perazzo. Her ability to synthesize the jazz tradition and 21st century soul is perfectly captured in her arrangement of “Sugar/Brown Sugar,” which combines Stanley Turrentine’s funky jazz standard with D’Angelo’s R&B hit. The album confused some longtime fans--it wasn’t straight ahead jazz and it was too jazzy for R&B airplay — but it captured many of the qualities that make Ledisi a force to be reckoned with.
After more than a decade building a career as an independent artist on the Bay Area scene, she finally broke through to a national audience with her 2007 major label debut on Verve/Universal, Lost & Found, which garnered her Grammy nominations for Best New Artist and Best R&B Album. Since then she’s been spreading her wings in every direction. She made a brief but vivid appearance as a blues singer in George Clooney’s 2008 comedy Leatherheads and regularly hangs heavyweights like Quincy Jones, Chaka Khan, Jill Scott, Prince, and Sergio Mendes (who featured her singing Jobim’s classic “Waters of March” on his album 2008 album Encanto).
Last year she earned a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Performance for her collaboration with keyboardist Robert Glasper on “Gonna Be Alright” from his Grammy Award-winning album Black Radio. Wednesday’s performance at the Warfield is part of her tour with the Robert Glasper Experiment. She’s working with her own band, but you can be sure that she’ll be joining Glasper, an artist who is similarly steeped in jazz and gospel as well as R&B.
“He does his set and then I do my show, and towards the end we do ‘Gonna Be Alright’ with ‘Alright,’” Ledisi said, referring to a stand out track from her album Lost & Found. “I watch his set every night, and I love when we can perform together. It gives a round performance that goes from jazz, hip hop and R&B to pop and real R&B. I love that.”