Washington, DC (Constitution Hall) - The Valentine's evening ended as it began, jumping with wistful fun and bursts of inspired spontaneity. In impossibly high, candy apple stilettos, belting "I Try", an iridescent Ledisi strutted out on stage in a shimmering silver mini-dress. In addition to the evening opener, Ledisi covered many of the highlights from her recent Verve debut, Lost and Found, including "Today", "Get To Know You," "In The Morning" and the inspirational highlight of the night "I Think of You." Throwing spiraled dreads that danced and bounced with Ledisi all night long, the singer two-stepped, cracked jokes and played hype woman to warm-up the conservative DC crowd for fellow artists. A charmer to the core and a total comedienne, the New Orleans beauty didn't allow the initially stiff ticket-holders or a bout with the flu to slow her roll. Ledisi's exuberance proved irrepressible. By the time she got to "I Think of You" (where she schooled us on the song's gospel, and ahem, not secular message) the audience was dancing, singing along and offering one of the evening's many standing ovations.
Ledisi may have proven a tough act to follow for anyone other than 2007 SoulTracks Album of the Year Award winner, Rashaan Patterson. Throughout his mostly up-tempo set, Rahsaan hit all the right notes including some spectral ones we aren't even sure are on a scale. Furthering the Valentine's theme, Rahsaan hit the stage singing "The One For Me" from After Hours sporting a red blazer, matching tie, tinted shades and vintage jeans stuffed into a pair of Ã¼ber-chic boots. His trademark vocal styling and liberated approach to melody were given ample display as Rahsaan elongated, deconstructed and reinterpreted recent hits "Delirium", "Feels Good", and "Stop Breaking My Heart" from his recent release Wine and Spirits. "Spend The Night" from his 1997 debut album was also given a playful treatment as Rahsaan would retreat and return to the microphone in between breaths, attacking each note with the ferocity of a boxer seizing an opponent. The audience certainly felt good when they heard the opening bars of Sade's "Love Is Stronger Than Pride," which Rahsaan covered with the appropriate delicacy. He was adeptly supported by a local DC band who gave Rashaan all the room he needed to play, pressing his indelible mark on the sacred hit.
On the up-tempo jams, the players jammed, completely in the pocket. The band's spare approach to Rashaan's less up-tempo material wasn't always quite as becoming. Musical flourishes that seemed like necessities such as the familiar string arrangement from "Spend The Night" were noticeably absent, but Rahsaan's dynamic voice more than made up for any of the band's minimalism. Rashaan's background vocalists didn't have a whole lot to do with the virtuoso at the helm, but showed solid technique when given the opportunity.
The prolonged vocal acrobatics Rahsaan (and later Lalah) showcased in this concert proved to be one for the hard-core fans and fellow musicians in the audience; those looking for short tunes and original compositions were surely frustrated. I, for one, cheered; I can listen to the CD to hear familiar note-for-note songs. There were, even for hardcore fans, other minor frustrations.
With four albums and over 20 years of music to his credit, favorite songs are bound to be skipped, particularly when working with new musicians. Choosing to stick to mostly danceable grooves, Rahsaan kept his set light on the somber and nostalgic. My hopes of hearing Rahsaan sing "Deliver Me" or "Stars" from Wine and Spirits, or any number of tunes from his first three albums, were dashed as Rahsaan called out his friend and fellow artist, Lalah Hathaway to take the stage. But all was soon forgiven once the bare-foot, chocolate Venus-rocking a breezy red Grecian gown-sashayed to the microphone, presiding over a dimly lit set that was all love and romance.
It took a minute, however, to get there. The lighting folks at Constitution Hall blared the brightest possible spotlight on the smooth jazz and soul Goddess, bringing out her inner comedienne as well. Never missing a beat, Lalah ran back and forth across the stage to escape the offensive light for most of her opening number, incorporating lighting instructions to the tech crew into the tune and leaving the audience in stitches. But, under Lalah's spell, the laughter didn't last for long.
From the pure suede, in the basement delivery of "We Were Two" from Lalah's 2004 Outrun The Sky album to her jazzed-up version of "People Make The World Go Round" that can be found on Marcus Miller's 1998 "Live and More," Lalah took her time expertly lulling the audience into a hypnotic sway. By the time she got to her most recent hit, "Forever, For Always, For Love" from the similarly titled Luther Vandross tribute album, couples were swooning, clutching palms, and whispering plans for late-night rendezvous in their partner's ear.
As lovely as Lalah's cover of Luther was for her acolytes, it was a tune from her debut that was the evening's zenith. With subtle lighting, two soft singing backing vocalists, and a pulsating band, Lalah Hathaway made her quiet storm classic, "I'm Coming Back," a meditative, almost sacred affair. There was such a gentleness and reverence in Lalah's rearranged approach to the nearly ten-minute song that the audience fell into total, respectful silence. Tears streamed down several faces, my own included, as Lalah soothed every soul in the room with her voice. It's often said, but Lalah, made the live version of "I'm Coming Back" a spiritual experience. I only hope that some insightful A&R rep at her label has the sense to get a copy of this version recorded as a bonus track on her next album release, coming out in June.
Her coffee rich tone and understated delivery is one of the most celebrated in smooth jazz, but Lalah teased audiences with unexpected moments on "Somethin'", "Baby Don't Cry" (both from her self-titled debut) and "People Make The World Go Round" where proved she can climb the scales and run with the ease of any gospel star. She is by her own admission, just more comfortable rummaging around "in the basement." She can also scat with the best of them, which she did to alternately comic and impressive effect with Ledisi and Rahsaan in some healthy vocal competition as the evening's closer. The winner of the night was the DC audience who got to see this annual Valentine's Day event coordinated by Lalah's camp. A brief three or four-city tour has run its course with Angie Stone replacing Ledisi after the D.C. show. But ticket seekers shouldn't get too disappointed. There are negotiations for six additional cities and all three artists have been hitting the road hard in support of their prospective and newly released projects. So, be on the lookout for tickets; you're guaranteed a phenomenal experience.
--L. Michael Gipson