Ledisi goes home for her holiday

The Baltimore Sun

Always at Christmas, Ledisi's house was abuzz with loud friends and family members. A funky good time was in full swing for hours.

"It was from church to the house, people eating by the stove. It was none of that sit-down thing," the R&B; singer says. "People playing dominoes, drinking, cussing and singing. At the end of the night, I would sit by the tree, looking at the lights when I was supposed to be 'sleep."

For It's Christmas, her latest album and second release for the venerable Verve label, Ledisi encapsulates the soulful mood of those holidays in New Orleans and Oakland, Calif., the cities where she grew up. Traditional gospel is reimagined with savory funk-fried rhythms, while Christmas evergreens such as "Silent Night" receive elastic jazzy soul treatments.

Ledisi's powerful, expressive voice blazes throughout. She sounds much looser in this context than she did on her Verve debut, last year's well-received Lost & Found. That album garnered Ledisi two Grammy nominations, including one for best new artist.

"I kind of consider it a pit stop to the next album," Ledisi says of It's Christmas. She will be performing cuts from it at Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis on Monday and Tuesday nights.

"It was my manager's idea, so I can't take credit for it," she says. "What you hear is what it was like for me [in the studio]. Everything was recorded organically. It was recording the old way. The guests just stopped through."

Those who came by to enrich the album's sound include gospel veteran Richard Smallwood, jazz-pop star George Duke and respected modern-day blues man Keb Mo.

Like Ledisi's previous albums, her two stellar but hard-to-find indie CDs (2001's Soulsinger and 2002's Feeling Orange But Sometimes Blue) and her 2007 major-label debut, It's Christmas showcases her expansive range. But unlike much of Lost & Found, the holiday album rightfully places her dynamic vocals in arrangements that eschew slick, programmed instrumentation.

A full, '70s-style band, replete with strutting horns and busy percussion, support Ledisi's Chaka Khan-influenced approach. Sassy, with punchy blasts of brass, the self-penned "Be There For Christmas" is a standout. The romantic "This Christmas (Could Be the One)" floats on an economical string arrangement. Ledisi's voice swoops, soars and sizzles over it all. On the jazz-kissed "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve," she invokes Ella Fitzgerald.

"I've been stretching out," says Ledisi, who spoke this week by phone from San Francisco where she was performing. "But I always have to challenge myself. Right now I'm in creative mode."

While the artist works on her follow-up to Lost & Found, which she hopes to release in the spring or early summer, Ledisi tours steadily. In concert, her background in drama and comedy sparkles, adding another dimension to her music. Well before the release of the critically acclaimed Lost & Found, Ledisi had been filling clubs and medium-sized venues along the East and West coasts.

The Verve debut didn't exactly set the charts ablaze. But cuts from it, especially the first single, "Alright," still receive steady spins on urban adult radio.

"Every album I've done, it takes about a year for people to catch on," Ledisi says. "I think it's very telling that there are people out there who really love music. I'm not the only one out here making live, organic music. It feels good to know people still love that."

But it's hard for her to harness all of that explosive energy in the studio.

"I give hope, spirituality in my shows," Ledisi says. "I have to have that underlying sense of hope. Men can relate; women can relate. I'm an honest performer. I give it all like it's my last show."

Ledisi's shows on Monday and Tuesday nights at Rams Head Tavern, 33 West St. in Annapolis, are sold out.

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