Ledisi - It's Christmas (2008)

Ledisi
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Richard Smallwood's elegant and suitably reverential opener for It's Christmas, "I'll Go," tells the story of Ledisi's first Xmas album: sweetly conventional compositions consistently disrupted by the raw might and earthy grit of Ledisi's soaring instrument. Repeatedly, Ledisi's skill and swagger transform this jazz and blues influenced set into something that transcends typical holiday fare. The eclectic and occasionally whimsical It's Christmas also strongly benefits from its liberal definition of "Christmas music" and a rather eager pre-Christmas release date. Xmas music fans preferring their seasonal melodies completely mellow may be challenged by Ledisi's explosive and re-inventive approach to some of the project's traditional classics. Ledisi fans, however, won't be disappointed in the least; they wouldn't expect anything less from their Nawlins spitfire.
Richard Smallwood's elegant and suitably reverential opener for It's Christmas, "I'll Go," tells the story of Ledisi's first Xmas album: sweetly conventional compositions consistently disrupted by the raw might and earthy grit of Ledisi's soaring instrument. Repeatedly, Ledisi's skill and swagger transform this jazz and blues influenced set into something that transcends typical holiday fare. The eclectic and occasionally whimsical It's Christmas also strongly benefits from its liberal definition of "Christmas music" and a rather eager pre-Christmas release date. Xmas music fans preferring their seasonal melodies completely mellow may be challenged by Ledisi's explosive and re-inventive approach to some of the project's traditional classics. Ledisi fans, however, won't be disappointed in the least; they wouldn't expect anything less from their Nawlins spitfire.

Coming a long way from her DIY indie roots, Ledisi works with some of the best producers in the business for her holiday foray, many from her best-selling Lost and Found Verve debut. Rex Rideout, George Duke, Lorenzo Johnson and Luther "Mano" Hanes and even gospel legend Smallwood take turns behind the boards, each revealing a different side to Ledisi. Sometimes for the better, when they allow the gutsy singer to just go for it. Sometimes for the worst, when they rein her in so much that the material isn't allowed any room to breath. Gratefully, most of the project's tunes find a balance between Ledisi's raw adrenaline bursts and the urge to strongly toe these familiar melody lines. Every time these producers and arrangers allow the belter space for her infusions of vocal dynamite, the song immediately comes alive. For example, the Motown classic "Give Love On Christmas Day" begins as a fairly faithful reading until Ledisi breaks out of the safety zone on the bridge and closer, finally giving it that sonic thrust we expect from the siren. She does so again on the Smallwood tune and the frothy Dreamgirls flavored "Be There For Christmas."

The best emotional moments on It's Christmas come through Ledisi's expansive understanding of the Xmas spirit and how that spirit was intended to be expressed during the holiday season. There is plenty of joy, soul stirring exuberance and a demonstrative respect for humanity to be found in this material. The chosen songs also speak to what this memorable time can mean for both lovers and families. Part of the beauty of Ledisi delivering this gem months before we are bombarded with Christmas commercialism is that her song choices and the producers' approach give us an opportunity to breathe in an atmosphere of awe, wonder and love for our fellow human beings-sentiments often lost by Black Friday and the weight of its accompanying bills. It's Christmas shows that what lies beneath the soaring, fiery vocalist is a very sensitive, sentimental lady.

You hear Ledisi's sensitivity in a very tender reading of Louis Armstrong's classic "What A Wonderful World," a cover that avoids any whiffs of the American Idol renditions that have recently stained this pop standard. While the arrangements don't move me, Ledisi's compassion and sincerity certainly do on her self-penned (with Lorenzo Johnson) "This Christmas (Could Be The One)" and (with George Duke) "It's Christmas." There is something winsome and a little lonely about her "What Are You Doing New Years Eve," enough so to replace Nancy Wilson's more lilting version as a personal favorite.

Sentiment is cute and all, but when we talk about Ledisi what fans want to hear about are those signature powerhouse vocals they've come to expect. Ledisi more than satisfies their ears on the gospel meets junkyard funk of "Thank You." Gritty vocals are also killingly present on the rousing roadhouse blues of "Please Come Home For Christmas," where Ledisi pulls notes out of her nether regions and sends them right through the roof, giving Christmas a red dirt treatment like none I've ever heard. Adding her typical saucy zest and strutting attitude to the prim but swinging spiritual "Children Go Where I Send Thee," Ledisi completely re-imagines this classic for the whole family.

While it lacks the strength of those three stunners, Ledisi's "Silent Night" is another re-invention -- but one of jazzy instrumentation rather than vocal styling. With only a bass and brush percussion backing Ledisi's exquisite vocals, seldom has "Silent Night" been so spare and clean. It's just one of many pleasant discoveries found throughout It's Christmas. With songs rich with soothing sensitivity, roaring vocals or and often both, Ledisi again proves why she's always at the top of every music lover's Xmas list. Highly recommended.

L. Michael Gipson

 
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