Ledisi Brings Holiday Cheer With "It's Christmas"

December 16, 2008 10:17:41 AM PST
Grammy-nominee Ledisi is giving audiences a special gift this month as she headlines a national tour featuring songs from both her new holiday It's Christmas and selections from her major label debut album Lost & Found (both on Verve). She's appearing at a sold out concert Tuesday night at the DuSable Museum in Chicago. Ledisi is sure to light up the stage with her blend of R&B, soul, and gospel while slow burners like "This Christmas (Could Be The One)" create an elegant and tender holiday moment also essential to the season. Though it bears a similar name to the Donny Hathaway classic, "This Christmas (Could Be The One)" is one of the four original songs co-written by Ledisi for her new holiday album.

Ledisi has added another accolade to an unprecedented year with a BET J Virtual Awards nomination for Female Artist of the Year. Earlier in 2008 Ledisi was nominated for the Best New Artist GRAMMY award while her album also earned a Best R&B Album nomination. She has made numerous high-profile jazz festival appearances throughout the year as well as a performance with Prince at Coachella and on The Tonight Show, with Sergio Mendes on the Tonight Show, and a week with the Count Basie Orchestra at the legendary Blue Note in NYC. Ledisi also performed in George Clooney's film Leatherheads and the Reprise Theatre Company's Once On This Island.

Since the August 2007 release of her Verve debut Lost and Found, Ledisi confesses that her life has undergone all manner of transformation. One glance at her achievements in a whirlwind of activity over the past year, and it's clear that the two-time 2008 Grammy nominee (for Best New Artist and Best R&B Album) has fulfilled dream after dream. "It's been a little overwhelming," she admits.

With true glee, Ledisi recalls performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival (with Chaka Khan, and at a birthday tribute to Quincy Jones), doing her own set at the Essence Music Festival as well as paying tribute to Patti LaBelle, and appearing in a major movie, George Clooney's Leatherheads. And, she adds, "I got to record a Christmas album. In three days! It sounds insane, but we did it!"

The result: the joyously celebratory It's Christmas, another first for a performer who constantly receives standing ovations from A-list show business veterans and everyday 'Ledheads' (as her growing legion of fans are known) alike. Offering her thoughts on the project, Ledisi says, "I'd like to think of it as a piece of art, a body of work. It's not like any other record I've ever made and I hope it will be something that people will pull out and listen to every year."

The twelve-track set is pure Ledisi: a heady mixture of jazz, R&B, pop and gospel that moves effortlessly from an unforgettable emotionally riveting version of Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World" (featuring trumpeter Christian Scott), to a marvelously blues'n'soul-flavored "Please Come Home For Christmas" (with special guest Keb Mo). "We had so much fun in the studio! Keb is like an older brother and one of my favorite guitarists and blues players. I wanted to capture the kind of feeling that I always associate with Aretha when she sings anything that's bluesy."

"I would sneak in where all the presents were still laid out at the end of Christmas Day. I'd just sit and look at all the lights," Ledisi recalls, recalling her own childhood, "and it would amaze me. When it came time to record this album, I wanted to make sure we captured what my version of Christmas would be like, and "Silent Night" reflects how I felt when it was still at the end of Christmas Day. We did this in just one take, like much of the recording."

Track by track, Ledisi ? working primarily with producer Rex Rideout (who contributed significantly to Lost and Found) ? brings her brand of soulful creativity and musical intuition to It's Christmas. Beyond its obvious theme, the album becomes another wonderful stand-alone achievement for this multi-faceted artist, who co-wrote four songs for the set, including the soothingly poignant title track, co-written and produced by the legendary George Duke.

Originally planned as a four-song EP for the holiday season, It's Christmas became an entire project literally in the studio. Ledisi explains, "I was on tour at the time and I just came in and did it. We used live instrumentation throughout so the record has a real organic feel like my first album, Soulsinger. And honestly, I never finished an album this fast in my life!"

In terms of her approach to making a Christmas record, Ledisi says, "I wanted the vibe of the album to reflect what it was like after Christmas in my household, when there would be 'grown folk' talk! You know, after a full day, the kids would be asleep and the adults would start to drink and laugh? I would sneak out and listen in! I wanted that kind of energy on the record, and music that would also remind me of my childhood."

Opportunities have indeed been plentiful in the past couple of years since the release of Lost and Found, but her musical journey (which began during her formative years in New Orleans) had more than its share of dues-paying. Building a solid following through live performances in the Bay Area in the '90s while teaching voice at Berkeley, Ledisi experienced her share of frustration at the initial lack of response from major labels. She formed her own label (LeSun) with musical partner and friend Sundra Manning and with the 1999 release of Soulsinger (featuring the cut "Get Outta My Kitchen"), she began receiving acclaim and a groundswell of interest in her work. Further validation came with 2002's LeSun release, the jazz-inflected Feeling Orange but Sometimes Blue, prompting one reviewer to state, "Her voice reaches and aches?wallows and resonates?the girl is just plain ol' bad!"

After years of constant performances and building her base, Ledisi's breakthrough came in 2004 when she was included on a Verve tribute to the late Luther Vandross. Her Rex Rideout-produced cover of the soul music legend's "My Sensitivity" gained national airplay and prompted Verve to sign her. Two years in the making, Lost and Found was released in 2007 after a period of major change in Ledisi's life: she moved from the comfort of her Northern California environment to New York "sleeping on the floor of a friend's apartment!" In the Big Apple, she was involved in the workshop stage for Oprah Winfrey's Tony-winning stage adaptation of The Color Purple, all the while writing and cutting demos and then flying to L.A. to record them for what would become her auspicious Verve debut.

A PBS televised tribute to Ella Fitzgerald ("We All Love Ella") http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uAyv4nQYhxk on which Ledisi floored audiences with a show-stealing version of "Blues In The Night" came just months before Lost and Found was released. Ledisi's two Grammy nominations in 2008 were confirmation that she had begun a new chapter both in her career and in her life.

Now comes Ledisi's sophomore Verve set, It's Christmas, which includes a song that affords Ledisi a way to express her own personal gratitude. The upbeat original "Thank You," co-written and co-produced with Mano Hanes (who was responsible for three collaborations on Lost and Found, including the ever-popular "Best Friend" and one of Ledisi's virtual anthems, "Today") was the second-to-last song recorded for It's Christmas. It was, she says, "the hardest song to finish and I think the hardest song I've ever sung. I was just worn out from touring and recording and yet Mano was able to pull the best out in me. I love that we ended the CD with it because it was most important that I be myself on this album, especially since it had a particular theme. There was lot of risk in doing it even down to how I look on the CD cover. 'Thank You' was my way of saying thanks to God for all the blessings, all the things that have gone in my career. When I think of Christmas, I think of a time to be grateful for all that I have in my life."

You can listen to "This Christmas (Could Be The One)" here: http://verve.edgeboss.net/qtime/verve/ledisi/christmas/this_christmas.mov


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