Want the ingredients for an evening of music you will likely never forget? Start with a heaping helping of Ledisi, add Darin Atwater conducting the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), sprinkle in a surprise appearance from a legendary musician, garnish it with visuals by Ron T. Young and then serve it up in the Concert Hall at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The night of soul food began with a performance by The Mellow Tones, a vocal ensemble from the historic Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C. The talented young men and women stirred souls with songs that included Duke Ellington’s “In A Mellow Tone” and a fitting selection for our turbulent times, Marvin Gaye’s classic “What’s Going On.”
After a brief intermission, the Concert Hall filled with the melodious sounds of percussion, brass, woodwinds and strings at conductor Darin Atwater’s relentless urging before tapering off. A video of Ledisi was projected onto a screen behind the musicians taking up the entire wall. Casually dressed, humble and at times emotional, Ledisi shared her journey and explained her choice to honor the music and legacy of the incomparable Nina Simone. A video montage followed and Ledisi recounted the incredible opportunity to sing “Four Women” with Jill Scott, Marsha Ambrosius and Kelly Price at Black Girls Rock! in 2010 that catapulted her career. The screen faded to black and Ledisi floated onto the stage clad in a stunning African print gown with dramatic sleeves and a train that regally heralded her queen status. She stepped to the mic and filled the room with her soaring out-of-this-world vocals singing that same star-making verse from “Four Women” introducing everyone to “Peaches” before exiting the stage.
Ledisi reemerged in a royal blue gown to fully start her show. The evening was a sweet seesaw back and forth between the genius that is Nina Simone and Ledisi’s original work. Video of a little girl running, happy and carefree, was juxtaposed with Ledisi singing Simone’s “Little Girl Blue.” She mused, “I love being a woman, it feels good. Women, I dedicate this song to you,” before launching into her hit song “Pieces of Me.” Portraits of famous contemporary women flashed behind her, from Diana Ross to Tina Turner to Venus and Serena Williams. A photo of First Lady Michelle Obama was met with thunderous applause, nearly drowning out Ledisi and the NSO. A photograph of Ledisi and her mother followed to end the montage on a sentimental note.
How fitting it was that a cover of Nina’s “I Put A Spell On You” followed next; Ledisi and the NSO had everyone mesmerized. Flowing back to her catalog, she sang the bluesy number “Turn Me Loose” and the lovelorn “Hate Me.” She then gave her longtime musical director and the night’s pianist Anthony Walker the spotlight, and he played a piano solo before Ledisi stepped back to the microphone to sing the jazz standard “Trouble In Mind.”
The NSO strings mimicked Ledisi’s gifted range on her song “Lost and Found,” and the brass section stepped up for a rousing cover of Simone’s “Feeling Good.” Ledisi’s “I Blame You” got people on their feet dancing and singing along to the uptempo R&B number.
All decorum was saved by the incredibly talented conductor with an instrumental break. Atwater’s original composition as performed by the NSO was stirring and calming in the same moment. At its close, Ledisi meandered back onto the stage clad in a jaw-dropping gold gown, but her costume change wasn’t the only surprise. Ledisi welcomed the iconic pianist, composer, record producer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and music director Patrice Rushen to the stage who walked out to deafening applause, whistles and cheers. Rushen spoke words of praise for Ledisi and the bond between the artists was evident.
The pair premiered their labor of love, a healing number meant to combat the hate and angst that has recently gripped our nation, “Come Back To Love.” The compelling lyrics, powerful vocals, robust instrumental and virtuoso piano solo by Rushen brought concertgoers to their feet and tears to their eyes. Following that triumphant moment, Ledisi kept the momentum going with a classic from her own catalog, “Alright,” to end the concert on an inspirational high. Raucous applause and pleas for an encore quickly ensued. Ledisi graciously obliged, returning to the stage with The Mellow Tones to bring the night full circle.
Ledisi is indisputably one of the greatest voices of our time. Her first of two nights performing with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center was a magnificent display of her artistry. This show may have been her first of 2017, but it was arguably the greatest of her career.