LIVE: The Philadelphia Orchestra: “Ledisi Sings Nina” @ Saratoga Performing Arts Center, 08/03/2022

For Ledisi, a broke and desperate young R&B singer, Nina Simone sang “everything I needed to hear” to save her life, via the radio on her Oakland porch.

This heartfelt feeling of thanks for saving my life elevated Ledisi’s tribute to his late great predecessor and his inspiration into the transcendent on Wednesday night. She brought songs from Simone (and others) and her R&B band in a one-night partnership with the Philadelphia Orchestra at SPAC to a small but delighted crowd.

Nina Simone, 1982

The evening, however, began with a bold, brassy musical opener as William Eddins led the Phiadelphians in a mostly Gershwin medley that had nothing to do with what followed. In R&B parlance, this opening “gave the orchestra some energy” and they sounded perfectly enthusiastic. Much better, after some cheerful quips from Eddins, was Duke Ellington’s “Solitude,” a scintillating serenade in the strings.

Ask “Are you all ready for a church?” Eddins greeted Ledisi’s black-clad band on stage and then the singer herself in sparkling kimono-like splendor. Citing her late June appearance on the same stage at Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival, she recalled, “I told you I clean up good!”

Ledisi, Saratoga Jazz Festival 2022

And then she delved into Nina Simone’s songbook and started at the top, the majestic “Feeling Good,” singing alone at the start. Then the strings eased and his band followed after the first verse.

Whereas Simone sang in a richly authoritative contralto with a mostly restrained manner, Ledisi wields a much wider range, sonically and emotionally. In “Feeling Good,” she patiently built the song until stratospheric phrases burst into nimble skat-singing. The crowd did this intrusive thing for the Broadway audience, clapping too early and right above them to reward the fireworks. But that faded as she continued, and thankfully the lesson learned was not repeated.

Ledisi asked permission, indeed, to rework Simone’s familiar “My Baby Just Cares for Me” to a rhythmically propelling lope, past a tenor sax solo – the clarinet section all seemed to have grabbed saxes instead – and in a low weathered coda.

She then recounted how hearing Simone on the radio saved her life at a troubled moment of near-surrender and sang in ‘Trouble In Mind”s bold, bluesy assertion that she knew the sun would shine through her doorstep. back one day. She stuck with the blues, but also became playfully seductive in “Do I Move You?” Dissatisfied with a call and an initially lukewarm response from the public, she waved it off, assuring that “you will know what to do next time”. They (we) did it; as did its young guitarist who added a lively solo at the end.

Eddins had watched past the silent orchestra as Ledisi’s band carried the music, but stood up and gave the cue to the entire aggregation in “All the Way”, sung at first in silence , then with a growing wave of instruments and two singers from Ledisi’s regular crew. The music swells majestically, then subsides behind the fervent voice of Ledisi, all alone, but punctuated by cries from the public, as in church.

Not everything stems from Simone’s soul and jazz heritage. Ledisi introduced The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” (which Simone also recorded) remembering she was eight years old singing it before school. A gifted actor with almost as many screen credits as albums, she transformed into her schoolgirl self, all restless charm, but musically fearless.

Ledisi as Mahalia Jackson, from the movie Selma

This acting skill in gesture and movement served the songs well as it energized the music and the audience.

“Work Song” wrapped the first set in a fiery, bluesy, brassy, ​​and daring all-in roll. Two orchestra percussionists shook chains to signify a prison gang as Ledisi’s drummer went wild in the release.

The second set kicked off to powerful slow blues before Eddins welcomed Ledisi, promising more church. She started out in a beautifully subdued way that built great waves of musical strength and feeling.

In her first comeback song on stage, Ledisi first sang “Wild As the Wind” quietly and then took off at high speed. She followed with another original Simone composition, the protest anthem “Baltimore”, played and sung to a reggae beat that the orchestra handled with the same aplomb as the band. Without pause, the entire mighty musical machine flowed into Ledisi’s own emotionally charged “Shot Down,” completing a compelling Black-Lives-Matter-themed sequel of soulful moral force.

Paying tribute to Nichelle Nichols, the pioneering Black Woman ‘Star Trek’ actress who died the previous Tuesday, Ledisi leaned into Simone’s ‘See Line Woman’, dancing and spinning enthusiastically while maintaining perfect vocal control. , body and voice perfectly synchronized.

She then dedicated her own love song “Anything For You” to Simone – “for saving my life, that day”. She turned to the orchestra and noted gratefully, “They’re playing my song! – then moved closer to her group for a vast voice backed by violins.

Then she blasted the slow blues “I Put a Spell on You” to a breathtaking orchestral scale, repeating “I love you, I love you” hypnotically until slowing down to proclaim with a menacing possessiveness “BECAUSE you are mine!”

Ledisi, singing “I Put a Spell on You”

Finally, she brought up her hometown of New Orleans on “Going Back Home,” inviting the crowd to the second row. Some did, instead, waving handkerchiefs and at least an umbrella. This celebratory number enthused the crowd and the show, which ended with a funky vamp from his band, but no encore as Eddins danced Ledisi offstage.

The show seemed a bit lopsided at times, the orchestra inactive – save for a few cheerful-looking sit-dances as Ledisi’s band carried her. Once the format felt familiar, it evoked variety more than a lack of engagement.

Ledisi wisely let his music do the talking, so the contrast between his era and Simone’s was at times subtly unspoken. Famous for her pungency, Simone sometimes resorted to gunfire and ripping phones off the wall to get her way, and sang against racism and female domination, even in show business. Stuck with record labels (as Simone also was sometimes), Ledisi simply launched her own, risking all her savings to produce her album “Ledisi sings Nina” which inspired her to work with orchestras this summer.

On Wednesday at SPAC, she proved she not only had the will to do what she wanted, but also the fuel and power to make the music she wanted.