Ledisi Revamps Nina Simone’s Classic Work On ‘Ledisi Sings Nina’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Ledisi, the New Orleans-born, Oakland-raised contemporary Grammy-winning R&B singer is determined to make her generation familiar with Nina Simone. Simone’s awareness has, of course, coincidentally risen in recent months, mostly due to her amazing performance in the Questlove- directed film Summer of Soul, and perhaps to a lesser extent through the release of Simone’s performances in The Montreux Years, both covered on these pages.  So, coincidences aside, Ledisi has invested considerable work in this project, comprising just seven finely constructed arrangement-driven selections recorded in Holland, Los Angeles, London, and New Orleans that were laid down before and after the pandemic. Certainly, last summer’s period of social unrest and the BLM movement, largely youth driven, played in as well for Ledisi Sings Nina.

Within these seven selections we find quite a variety of both moods and instrumental backing. Most tracks feature the world-renowned Metropole Orkest conducted by Jules Buckley with arrangements by Jochen Neufer, and others. “I’m Going Back Home” features the all-star New Orleans Jazz Orchestra directed by Adonis Rose. “Four Women” is powered by Ledisi in the company of three vocalists of equal authority: Lisa Fisher, Lizz Wright, and Alice Smith. “Wild Is The Wind”—with Spanish guitar, piano, and drums—is the album’s sole live recording, taken from the 2020 PBS special broadcast Ledisi Live: A Tribute to Nina Simone.  Ledisi’s vocal range is wider than Nina’s and her power is arguably stronger but let’s acknowledge up front that while these are emotive and at times breathtaking vocal takes, no singer has the phrasing, the unique balance of classical, jazz, and blues, and overall unique presence of Nina, equal parts fire and grace.  Even Ledisi would likely agree with that statement. She has little choice but to be true to herself while in tribute and, to her credit, none of it comes across as imitative. 

Another major impression of this fantastic effort is the brevity of it, just seven songs which is puzzling because Ledisi has been performing Nina Simone songs in stage productions and concerts for a few years now.  Even in the liners, she refers to songs she may have included, referencing past performances of them.  She is slated for some high-profile appearances this summer, notably at Newport Jazz on July 31st where her hour-long slot alone, will be double the amount of time heard here.

Consider that in the past eight years, Ledisi has produced and toured popular tribute shows to Simone, and performed concerts on television, in major concert halls and at music festivals. In 2019, she wrote and starred in the autobiographical theatrical production The Legend of Little Girl Blue that ran for three weeks. “What I’m doing now with my version of her music is honoring it with my own experience,” says Ledisi, “which means touching and agreeing and moving into a newer version.” Tributes are nothing new for Ledisi, having played Mahalia Jackson in Selma and Patti LaBelle in the BET drama series American Soul. Yet Nina’s music has always been with her, from her days raised in a shotgun house in New Orleans, being awakened by her mom singing “Mississippi Goddam!”

She begins with “Feeling Good,” the prototypical Simone song that balances joy with just hints of sadness. Another memorable one follows in “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” which nods to the playful and sassy nature of Simone, to which Ledisi relates, updating it with references to Beyonce, RuPaul. Halle Berry and Michele Obama. “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (Don’t Leave Me) is one of the more complex Simone songs, originally penned by Jacques Brel and has Ledisi carefully alternating the English and the French lyrics. Ledisi and arranger Sebastian Koolhoven collaborated on a version that married Nina’s with Brel’s original. This song, as much as any, is a challenge in terms of changing dynamics and emotive phrasing, with Ledisi answering both, going from a wail to a hushed whisper in mere moments.

“Wild Is The Wind,” is a lesser known Nina selection, this one drawn from Ledisi’s PBS Special with Spanish guitar and a smaller ensemble. Here Ledisi reveals another trait she shares with Simone, classical music training, reaching the high register in operatic fashion in a song where elsewhere she stays mostly in the lower registers.  It is the album’s lone live performance. The standout “Work Song,” penned by Nat Adderley with lyrics from Oscar Brown Jr., was encouraged by the Metropol Orkest, who had done the song with Gregory Porter.  That alone was a bit intimidating, but Ledisi finds her groove midway between Simone’s and Porter’s version, pushed by the orchestra, which is superb in support, with stirring trumpet, saxophone, and trombone solos.

“Four Women” is, rather oddly, the only politically-tinged song here. Ledisi, as she has done in previous performances, takes the role of Peaches, the low warm voice of Aunt Sarah by Lizz Wright, the sultry, sensuous vocal of Lisa Fisher for Sweet Thing, and the youthful voice of Alice Smith for Saffronia. Wright begins, followed by Smith, Fisher, and Ledisi beginning with “My skin is brown” in a stunningly powerful entrance. This was recorded during COVID, with Wright and Smith recording remotely with Smith, who, like Ledisi, lives in L.A. doing it in the studio. The kind of crowd-rousing joy that Nina often closed performances with is reflected in “I’m Going Back Home,” the lone tune rendered with Adonis Rose and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. This, like several others, bears an arrangement based on previous live performances of the same song.

This is a brilliant recording.  We just wish it were longer. Stay tuned as it will be interesting to hear Ledisi perform these and more Nina fare at the upcoming Newport Jazz Festival which this writer will attend and report to you. 


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