Ledisi: Pretender To Queen Of Soul's Throne

Oakland, Calif., singer's debut CD, Soulsinger, features collage of irresistible jazz and R&B beats.

OAKLAND, Calif. — Not that Aretha Franklin has any plans to relinquish her crown, but if she did, any list of pretenders to the Queen of Soul's throne would have to include Ledisi.

The performance skills of the twentysomething New Orleans native, who recently released her debut CD, Soulsinger, were evident at last year's Monterey Jazz Festival, where she left more than 1,200 people yelling for more.

"I'd never experienced anything like that," Ledisi recalled recently. "It was really magical."

But that experience was repeated this spring, when the Oakland singer's set got the crowd standing and dancing at a performance at the Berkeley (Calif.) Community Theatre, on a bill that also included Dwayne Wiggins, the Roots and local soul singer Martin Luther.

"I had the best time doing that gig," said Ledisi, who wouldn't give her last name. "We all got to share the same stage and do what we do."

Soulsinger — written, produced, performed and mixed by Ledisi and her partner, Sundra "Sun" Manning — features a collage of irresistible jazz and R&B beats that make the listener want to move, evident in the album's smooth, jazzy first single, "Take Time" (RealAudio excerpt), which has been getting airplay on San Francisco's KMEL-FM (106.1). Ledisi lets it out on this song, scatting like Ella Fitzgerald as she sings about getting away from some of life's pressures.

A series of laid-back grooves distinguishes "In My Life" (RealAudio excerpt), a fast, jazzy song that deals with living a positive and upbeat life.

But Ledisi's serious side can be heard in "Coffee" (RealAudio excerpt), a disturbing yet invigorating song that deals with domestic violence and how a woman tries to get out of a dead-end relationship. It also can be heard in "Papa Used To Love Me," which deals with a girl's sexual abuse at the hands of her father.

"Ledisi is a pro," Luther said. "As far as her singing goes, she is one of the greatest of our generation."

Rose Mary Hart, programming manager for KMEL, said, "People love her sound." The singer, currently an independent artist and with Manning, owner of the label LeSun Music, acknowledges she is looking to get signed by a major label. She said various record companies have shown interest in her music, but none has bitten.

"You never know with record company executives," Ledisi said. "I am not a Destiny's Child. I don't do pop music, and most record companies don't know how to develop my style of music."

Growing up in Oakland, Ledisi developed her performance skills by studying opera, jazz and R&B when she began singing in high school.

"I was singing gospel at the same time I was singing opera," she said. "Opera taught me technique and articulation, and gospel gave me the grit, the feeling."

She went on to study music for five years at the University of California at Berkeley's Young Musicians Program. Singing on the local nightclub circuit, she was noticed by Steve Silver, the creator of San Francisco's long-running "Beach Blanket Babylon" revue, and she performed in that cabaret show for nine years.

But she called the high-water mark of her career her first performance at Yoshi's Jazz Club in Oakland in October. Just a few days after she released her CD, the nightclub sold out as people came to see her perform.

"After all of these years of performing in clubs and not expecting people to come out and see me at a bigger venue and pay money, I was shocked that people were waiting to see the CD," Ledisi said. "They were excited about that."

Ledisi also teaches aspiring musicians at jazz camps, such as the Stanford University Jazz Camp and Jazz Camp West in Oakland. She said teaching at the camps also helps her hone her technique.

"You can imagine yourself singing," she said. "It also helps me tone my skills and it makes me a better performer."