Ledisi Evokes The Spirt Of Nina Simone At The Hollywood Bowl
LOS ANGELES, CA- Tribute albums are a tricky thing. In an effort to pay homage to legends of the past, current artists will attempt to “put their spin” on a classic in order to hopefully live up to the original (or popularized) recording. In the sea of music, how many different takes of Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s composition “Hallelujah” exist? Too many to count, and too many to easily forget.
And how many artists can truly pull off an authentic tribute of a singular, generational talent? And how many artists can honorably record a full album of material that pays the appropriate kind of respect and attention to detail for each recording? I’m not talking about a tribute album with various artists. I’m talking about one artist taking on the exceptional repertoire of a GOAT. I can only think of a handful. Can you?
With “Ledisi Sings Nina”, I think I’ll be able to add another to my tally.
On “Ledisi Sings Nina”, Ledisi tackles 7 songs popularized by Nina Simone accompanied on a majority of the tracks by Jules Buckley and the Metropole Orkest. On this evening, July 24, 2021, she would bring those recordings to life with the backing of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.
The evening started with a thirty-minute performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by the inimitable Thomas Wilkins. With a wry smile, Wilkins welcomed the crowd saying, “We’ve got a lot of catching up do”.
Wilkins has always been a fantastic guide of the musical journeys he guides us on. For this evening, he explained that the selections were picked to help us get back to music’s roots. The first three selections were works of black composers: “Three Black Kings” by Duke Ellington (orchestrated by Luther Henderson), “Dance Negre” by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and “Juba Dance” by Florence Price. Each of these selections was steeped in rhythmic variance and life. “Juba Dance”, in particular, was a whirlwind of jovial spirituality, and though there was no rhythmic handclapping and slapping of thighs written into the orchestration- which are features of the juba dance, you could just feel that energy.
After a rousing performance of Jeff Tyzik’s “Harlem Street Scene,” Wilkins took a moment to give the final selection, Bach’s “Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor” a special introduction. He explained that the journey through our roots ends with Bach because it was a nod to one of Nina Simone’s favorite composers. In her autobiography, “I Put A Spell On You”, Nina explained that Bach:
“..[i]s technically perfect. When you play Bach’s music you have to understand that he’s a mathematician and all the notes you play add up to something–they make sense. They always add up to climaxes, like ocean waves getting bigger and bigger until after a while when so many waves have gathered you have a great storm. Each note you play is connected to the next note, and every note has to be executed perfectly or the whole effect is lost. Once I understood Bach’s music I never wanted to be anything other than a concert pianist. Bach made me dedicate my life to music.”
After the intermission, Ledisi took the stage and commenced her set with the iconic “Feeling Good”. I had a sense that the nerves got the better of Ledisi during this number, and she admitted as much, with a coy giggle, as soon as the song finished. I felt her voice settle, and get more resonant, during her third song, “Little Girl Blue” (a song that is not on “Ledisi Sings Nina”, but should be!), and she confidently proclaimed, “I’m not nervous no more.”
She then took a moment to explain to the audience the importance of Nina Simone in her life. Her story, and that connection, is well documented, and she then proceeded to sing the song, “Trouble In Mind” (another song that is not on her album), that saved her life. When the song ended, she triumphantly stated, I’m still here, ain’t I?”
By the time she hit “Work Song”, the vim and vigor of her performance were on full display. There was power. There was confidence. There was attitude. It was glorious. Nerves were no longer a factor. Now it was just awe. During a beat between “Work Song” and “Ne Me Quitte Pas”, she cheerfully squealled, “Oh My God, The Hollywood Bowl!”
Ledisi elicited laughs from the audience when suggested that Nina’s music was embedded with a deep longing, especially for a man. Mimicking, Nina’s unique talking voice, she dryly proclaimed, “I Want a Man”, eliciting laughs from the crowd before diving into a stripped-down rendition of “Be My Husband” (yet another glorious song that she didn’t record for her album).
Ledisi then told the audience that when Wilkins approached her about performing a couple of selections from her own repertoire, she indicated that there was one song that she said they couldn’t perform, to which Wilkins said, “No, that’s the one we have to do!” That song was the Grammy-nominated “All The Way”. I wondered why Ledisi would be hesitant about performing that song with an orchestra. In my humble opinion, that song was meant to be performed with the backing of a full orchestra. I mean, how could you not take advantage of that string section?
While Nina is well known for taking on important social issues, the show, up to this point, didn’t touch on those issues. That was until this moment. Ledisi merged Nina’s “Baltimore” (a Randy Newman cover) with her own “Shot Down”, and then performed “Four Women”. In a matter of minutes, we were smacked upside the head with powerful messages about economic inequality, gun violence, and female empowerment. It’s amazing how much can be said with music; and with Ledisi’s flawless voice and the power of the L.A. Phil, it was a revelatory concert moment.
With the evening nearing its conclusion, Ledisi took one more moment to address the crowd. “Are you loving this,” she questioned in disbelief, “I can’t believe I get to do this.” She then performed her 2021 Grammy-winning song “Anything For You”, which was followed by a stirring rendition of Nina’s iconic “I Put A Spell On You”. She closed the evening with the closing track of her album “I’m Going Back Home”.
This was a fantastic evening of music which is only tempered by the fact that a lot of the songs she performed are not on the album she released. Perhaps, however, that’s all for the better. Tributes don’t have to live forever, and often times the ephemeral is more powerful than the permanent. Either way, I”ll be remembering this performance for many years to come.