Review: NSO Pops: An Evening with Ledisi at The Kennedy Center

“Peaches” was in the house. Inspired by the spirit of Nina Simone, acclaimed American R&B and jazz recording artist, songwriter and actress, Ledisi performed an eclectic program of blues, jazz and R&B in concert performance of NSO Pops: An Evening with Ledisi. Under the musical direction of guest conductor Darin Atwater, the NSO Pops added contemporary classical styling to a breathtaking program of cultural fusion and creative freedom in the Concert Hall of the John F. Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts on Friday night.

Ledisi. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

NSO Pops: An Evening with Ledisi was filled with surprises and special treats beginning with The Mellow Tones, a spirited musical ensemble of 14 talented teens from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, under the musical direction of Mark G. Meadows, for the first part of the program.

Marching lockstep with fists raised, The Mellow Tones vibrantly sang a capella on the traditional  civil rights chant, “Aint Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” and followed with “In  a Mellow Tone” arranged by Mark G. Meadows and  written by their school’s  namesake.  Adding a local vibe with DC’s own Marvin Gaye on “Mercy, Mercy Me” and a new sounding arrangement of “What’s Going On,” The Mellow Tones soared with tight harmonies and piercing solos as  Meadows, an internationally renowned jazz pianist who recently performed the title role in Jelly’s Last Jam at the Signature Theatre, joined them onstage in song and piano accompaniment, for their entire performance.

The Mellow Tones. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Ledisi’s choice of songs for this program opened the audience to the more emotional side of the lady and her life. Introducing the show with black and white video graphics of Ledisi as a little girl running freely in an open field of flowers with the tender dreaminess of Nina Simone’s voice in the background, I knew we were in for a special evening that would roam free like the delightful imagination of a child.

Connecting with the audience through a voice that is as delicately enchanting as it is powerfully  strong, Ledisi projects an emotional honesty that is palpable. She talked about the ups and downs of being in the music business and the times when she literally thought about ending it all—including her life. Perhaps this is why Ledisi relates so closely with the turbulent Nina Simone and chose a program that highlighted the fire and ice of this jazz legend.

“Four Women Song” (with a wonderful video graphic of American female icons), “Little Girl Blue,”  “I Put a Spell on You” ( with a great NSO sax solo), “Trouble in Mind”, and “Feeling Good” were taken directly from the Nine Simone songbook and rendered magnificent with Ledisi’s  dazzling vocals and the NSO Pops’ sweeping accompaniment.

Ledisi is a home girl at heart and she reached out to the audience in songs that dealt with the challenges and changes that go with being in love. On “Hate Me,” she hit the high notes with ease. “I Blame You,” a popular dance tune, brought the audience to their feet with NSO Pops cymbals clashing at all the high points. “Pieces of Me” and “Alright” were two more Billboard favorites that the audience knew well enough to sing along. And with her beautiful classically trained voice, Ledisi scats and wails in a bluesy funk on many of her tunes that would make Ella proud.

Darin Atwater. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

“A Day in the Life” was a smashing NSO Pops solo piece that was grand in scope and lyrically textured under Darin Atwater’s skillful baton. His work as founder and director of Baltimore’s Soulful Symphony, an 85-member orchestra made up mainly of African American and Latino musicians, served him well for this soulful concert.

There were a number of seeming homecomings in NSO Pops: An Evening with Ledisi. Darin Atwater made his orchestral debut in 1995 as a composer and pianist with the National Symphony Orchestra when he performed an original Piano Concerto. And when Ledisi was only eight years-old, she made her public debut performing with her hometown’s New Orleans Symphony Orchestra. No wonder she was pinching herself throughout the evening telling the audience how awesome she felt performing with the NSO Pops. Ledisi and Atwater were home again performing within the safe space of the orchestral while adding their years of cultural expansion into new musical territories for this concert.

Super-talented Patrice Rushen, Grammy nominated R&B singer, composer, record producer and multi-instrumentalist joined Ledisi onstage in another fantastic surprise treat. Rushen and Ledisi collaborated on their premier of “Come Back to Love.” Creatively brilliant and emotionally moving in a “collision of cultures” that American music does so well, this melancholy but hopeful ode to love affirmed the “power of music to heal.” With Rushen at the keyboard and Ledisi singing its praises, “Come Back to Love” was a ballad of many “textured colors” with the robust sound of the NSO Pops filling the air as if caressing every note of this magnificent new work.

Ledisi has been nominated for nine Grammy Awards since she came onto the music scene in 1995. With seven studio albums in her repertoire and an eighth expected this year, she has a wealth of material to draw from. She performed a more blended fusion of R&B, blues and jazz for this concert that lent themselves well to NSO Pops orchestral accompaniment. However, it would have been great to hear more of her straight-up dance tunes, the popular ones that folks know so well and want to groove to. Showing us her more emotional side in a paean to Nina Simone felt different and new. And although Ledisi can sing it all with a dazzling voice that is truly a Divine gift, R&B is where she brings it home the best. This concert might have included more of her familiar chart toppers.

In finale, “Answer to Why,” with the girls chorus of The Mellow Tones, Ledisi’s own backup singers, percussion, guitars and longtime pianist Tony Walker and the full NSO Pops, An Evening with Ledisi, closed to a standing ovation in response to a stirring evening of one of the most uniquely different blending of the classic orchestral with dynamic R &B artistry that I have seen in a long time.

Running Time: Two hours, with a 20-minute intermission.

NSO Pops: An Evening with Ledisi was performed on February 24, 2017, at 8pm in the Concert Hall at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. The concert will be repeated today, February 25, 2017 at 8 p.m. For tickets call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or Toll-Free (800) 444-1324 or purchase them online.

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