"What's up, Bay Area?" Ledisi asked from the stage at last month's California Music Awards, held outdoors on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in downtown Oakland. The soul/jazz sensation was clearly enjoying a special moment: A few hours earlier, her latest disc, Feeling Orange but Sometimes Blue, had won the award for Best Jazz Album, validating her efforts both as an artist and as an independent businesswoman. Now she was taking her star turn, along with collaborator/organist Sun Manning and their band Anibade, doing something she does as well as any artist in recent memory -- performing.
For several years, Ledisi has easily been one of the most consistent live acts in Northern California, if not the United States. Until recently, she held down a regular slot in Beach Blanket Babylon, in addition to weekly gigs at Cafe du Nord and Bruno's, and regular appearances at Rassela's, Yoshi's, Bimbo's, and other venues. All that stage experience showed in Anibade's brief twenty-minute set at the CMAs, which left the audience almost literally begging for more.
The predominantly African-American crowd at the ceremony -- mostly entire families, as well as young adults and teens -- seemed to be feeling Ledisi and Anibade way more than the previous performer, Orixa, whose Latin-rock shtick sounded more metal than merengue. Anibade's chops were impressive, effortlessly segueing from R&B to jazz to soul, with on-point harmonies and tight grooves. The colorfully-dressed Ledisi was clearly the focal point of the band's show, however, moving to and fro across the stage and delivering her trademark ad-libs.
A wave of recognition rolled through the assembled masses during the opening chords of "Take Time," an easygoing crowd-pleaser that's been a staple of her live show for years. A good portion of the audience sang along with the chorus, "Take time/To get away/Free your mind/Fly away" -- a simple but effective stress-relief mantra. Too soon, the three-song set was over, prompting a smattering of boos from the audience, clearly disappointed there was no time for more.
Smoothing over the matter with a politician's sense of diplomacy, Ledisi didn't leave the stage before saying, "Thank you, Bay Area -- without you, we couldn't do what we do."
Indeed, the region has embraced her artistry, supported her efforts, and made her the phenomenon she is. Ledisi's debut album, 1998's Soulsinger, belongs in that rare category of Bay Area independent releases -- Metallica's Kill 'Em All, Green Day's Kerplunk!, DJ Q-Bert's Wave Twisters -- that practically constituted a movement all by itself. Soulsinger and the new CMA-winning Blue (it was also nominated for Best R&B Album) offer listeners a refreshingly retro flavor that goes against the grain of both contemporary R&B and the au courant trendiness of neo-soul.
Backstage before her showstopping CMA performance, Ledisi reflected on her music's influences -- gospel, pop, R&B, jazz, and soul -- and how those elements have all taken root in her wide-ranging style, which she equivocates to a "fat booty," and all that implies.
"You gotta keep the booty big," she deadpanned.
Her gleaming new paperweight -- a heavy brass replica of a microphone -- sparkled as she sat behind a desk in the Oakland Civic Center (converted to a dressing room for the occasion). The stately setting seemed strangely appropriate -- Ledisi projects a diva-like persona that commands authority and demands respect, though she also has a playful side. "I feel like I've always been a part of California's musical history," she quipped, "but the award just solidifies it. People who say they don't care about awards -- they do."
Ledisi's road to this point has been a long one. "Playing around here for so long, and playing in clubs where I get four or five dollars a night, doing four or five sets, really, that's been the makeup of working hard," she said. She considers herself a survivor, first and foremost: "I saw a whole era go down with the Brand New Heavies, you know, the whole acid jazz thing, and then the whole DJ thing." Still, "Being able to maintain a band throughout all these transitions in the Bay Area is just really rewarding," she said. "And to be able to do both styles of music that I like, jazz and R&B, and have people still accept it -- not a lot of artists get away with things like that."
Manning added her two cents: "We've got something to say, we've got music to share, and we're gonna do it with or without an award." Don't get her wrong, though. She may be confident, but she's not conceited. "We're grateful for the award, but at the same time, we're gonna keep doing our thing. The fans, they're the ones that keep it going. The reward is seeing their faces."
"Coming to shows, over and over again," Ledisi continued.
"It's just unbelievable," Manning added, completing the thought.
What's most remarkable to Ledisi and Manning is that they've created such a palpable buzz by being original and following their artistic instincts. "My whole band ... we're all eclectic. It brings in a different blend," Ledisi said. "Anytime you're innovative, and doing something different, it might take some time for people to get it. They might get it now, they might get it later, they might get it when you're dead."
"But they'll get it," Manning insisted.
"When I started," Ledisi continued, "innovation meant to do something different. It still means that, but add a whole bunch of other stuff onto it, like gathering patience, being consistent, and not changing yourself to fit in. Finding spirituality, because that gets deepened when you're different. As an artist, you want everyone to like it, but you can't expect that. Everything gets deepened, that's what innovation means to me. You become more than what you thought you were gonna be."
After years of grinding out a living in the Bay Area nightclub scene, Ledisi now stands on the verge of something much bigger -- perhaps even national and international stardom. She recently landed a deal with Tommy Boy Records, who put out an updated version of Soulsinger in April. The entire album was remixed and remastered, and two new tracks were added: a collaboration with bassist/vocalist Meshell Ndegéocello called "Hold On to Love," and a live version of the title track, recorded at Yoshi's. The songs have been totally cleaned up, with better-sounding drums and vocals, Manning explained. "We did most of the stuff at home, and [the sound] was really kind of dirty. It was a good dirty, though."
Having her CD actually available for purchase outside of her concerts and the Internet is a big relief to Ledisi. A little recognition by the industry doesn't hurt, either. After years of basically selling albums out the trunk, Too $hort-style, she and Manning are happy to have some help in that department. "For years, my living room was a storage place," Manning recalled. "We were packing and shipping CDs. It was really hard. But we're grateful for the deal with Tommy Boy." She notes that the deal includes pressing and distribution, but no promotional or marketing budget, which means, "We still have a lot of hard work." She and Ledisi hope their upcoming tour -- which includes an East Coast swing and a date at London's ultra-hip Jazz Cafe -- will help them move some units.
Which means Soulsinger could still reach new audiences, five years after its initial release -- a fact that amazes Ledisi. "It's a beautiful thing. I can't believe we put it out and it's still like fire for everybody."
For now, she's looking forward to spreading her wings and getting out there on tour -- even though making that move meant leaving the security of her weekly gigs and Beach Blanket Babylon, where she cut her teeth as a performer. "You know, sometimes you have to leave your mama," she shrugged. From BBB, she learned how to sing to the entire house, not just the first three rows. But she pointed out the difference between the revue and her own concerts is the degree of realness involved. Performing live without a prewritten script, Ledisi feels free to express whatever emotion she's feeling at the moment, even if folks may think she's being overly dramatic: "People say, 'Oh, you're so theatrical.' No, that's real. I just open up, so everybody can get me. I want the blind man to get it. If you close your eyes, you gon' get it too."
At least, that's the way it worked at her recent opening gig for R&B legend Al Green at the Mountain Winery -- not her usual crowd. "That was a trip! We were working it," Ledisi recalled. "The audience was shocked. First they had the deer look, and then they just loved it." After she pulled that off, she felt like she was ready for anything.
Ledisi also sold out Bimbo's in SF as a headliner recently, after "years and years of opening shows." She calls that event a "turning point," bringing her "full circle" and making her realize just how far she's come. "And now, to go on tour to New York and Philly and DC, come back and do LA, I mean, we've never done a full-on [tour] before. We've only done a spot here, a spot there." Yet no matter how well she's received by out-of-town crowds, there will always be a special place in her heart for the place that made her a cultural institution. "The Bay Area don't play! When they love you, they latch on and say, 'You are ours,'" she concluded. "That's why I love home."
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