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Soul Diva-lution
[whitespace] Ledisi
Bluelight: Ledisi sings raw-boned R&B, vocal jazz and swing.

Fuel shines a spotlight on the new breed of female soul singers

By Nicky Baxter

IN THE 1960s and '70s, women who sang the blues or trilled soul and R&B were anointed with royal status. By consensus, Aretha Franklin was queen of soul; vocalists like Gladys Knight and Irma Thomas were part of that elite family as well. Two decades later, Janet Jackson, Neneh Cherry, Mary J. Blige and others high-stepped onto the music scene, marking the ascent of the soul divas.

These artists were more sultry, more glamorous than their predecessors. They were also more catholic, blending soul, hip-hop, jazz and funk to produce a compelling contemporary hybrid. On Wednesday evenings throughout this month, the folks at Fuel shine the spotlight on the new breed, bringing in two acts: Anibade, featuring Ledisi, a chanteuse whose approval rating around the Bay Area is high and rising; and N'dea Davenport, an internationally acclaimed wunderkind.

New Orleans-born and Oakland-reared, Ledisi grew up studying opera, simultaneously developing a fetish for gospel, soul and jazz. "I was singing gospel at the same time I was singing opera," the vocalist says. "Opera taught me technique and articulation, and gospel gave me the grittiness, the feeling." From jazz, Ledisi learned freedom; notes could be toyed with, dissonance was OK. Old-school wailers like Chaka Khan helped convince her that full-throttled soul could move minds and bodies.

Ledisi's singing approach is spiked with raw-boned R&B, vocal jazz--she is especially adept at scat-singing--and even swing. After a two-year stint with acid-jazz combo Slyde 5, Ledisi formed Anibade four years ago, writing the lion's share of the music with Sundra Manning. The sextet (Sundra Manning, keyboards; LeGerald Norman, lead and background vocals; Wayne Braxton, saxophone; Nelson Braxton, bass; Rob Rhodes, drums; Cedrickke Dennis, guitars) is one of the most versatile units on the club circuit.

"Anibade is a beautiful mix," the singer says. "Jazz, R&B, funk, rock--you name it. If I say, 'Let's turn the switch from soul to swing,' they know how to do it." It took time to find just the right players for what Ledisi had in mind. "They listen, and they have energy," she explains, "and audiences love energy."

HOW DOES BLACK female pop music of the '90s compare to that of past decades? I ask. "For me," Ledisi explains, "the writing back then paid more attention to the song's meaning." According to Ledisi, the old-school soul women sang about female empowerment while today's songs place more emphasis on the beat: "[contemporary] music just doesn't seem to have as much to say."

Most assuredly, the same cannot be said of Ledisi and her musical compatriots. That was obvious at this year's Monterey Jazz Festival, where Anibade and Ledisi left a crowd of more than 1,200 stomping and yelling for more. "I'd never experienced anything like that; it was really magical," she says.

Fans of Anibade will finally get a chance to hear what the group sounds like on record; the group's debut, Bluelight, is due out early next year. Beyond that, Ledisi is making plans to record an album of jazz standards and originals tentatively called My Interpretations.

N'Dea Davenport's recording career dates back to her days as lead vocalist with the London-based outfit the Brand New Heavies. The Heavies performed a seductive admixture of down-low funk, hip-hopped jazz and percolating reggae. From the start, it was clear that Davenport was the main attraction.

Her vocal style mesmerized listeners, enticing them into a honey-sweet alternaworld where her voice, bathed in heady bass beats, lazily spiraling horns and baby-bottom-soft layers of keyboards, beguiled the senses. The American version of BNH's eponymous debut featured Davenport on re-recorded versions of songs, most notably "Dream Come True."

While working on Heavy Rhyme Experience: Vol. 1, Davenport also contributed to rapper/instigator Guru on his Jazzmatazz project. Given her transfixing stage presence and sultry vocal talents, it seemed inevitable that the singer/songwriter/producer would eventually try the solo route. The recently released N'Dea Davenport (V2) is a stirring collection of idiosyncratically funky tunes that incorporates elements of gospel, hopped-up soul and rock. The music here is daring; who'd have the nerve to cover Neil Young's "Old Man"?

Thematically, the recording ranges from the straightforward social commentary of "Real Life" to the naughty taunting of "Bring It On," to the self-explanatory jive of "Bullshittin.' " Davenport is passionate about exploring different musical worlds. On record and in performance, her music is ultimately concerned with a sense of community as well as spiritual independence.

Ledisi and Anibade appear Oct. 21 and 28 at 9pm; N'ea Davenport appears Oct. 14 at 9pm, at Fuel, 44 S. Almaden Ave., San Jose. Call for ticket information. (408/295-7374)

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From the October 8-14, 1998 issue of Metro.

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