At the height of Philadelphia's neo-soul renaissance in the late '90s and early 2000s, many flowers bloomed right in the heart of Old City.
Every Tuesday night, many of the most talented singers and prolific songwriters took center stage to sing classics and test new material in front of shoulder-to-shoulder crowds of critical music lovers. If you could make it at the Black Lily, you could make it anywhere.
Among the voices filling the air at the female-theme jam sessions were Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Jazmine Sullivan, Kindred the Family Soul, Floetry, Jazzyfatnastees, and Jaguar Wright.
This week, another alum of that storied series, India.Arie, returns to the Philadelphia area with a satchel full of holiday songs.
"From the very beginning of my career, Philly was where I was accepted the most, other than Atlanta," said the 40-year-old Arie, who plays the Keswick Theatre in Glenside on Thursday. "When I came there to perform, I always thought, 'Wait a minute. My people are not just in Atlanta. If I lived here, these would be my people.' "
The people Arie speaks of are the die-hard Philly music fans who showed up every week at the tiny Five Spot on Bank Street to revel in the soul, hip-hop, and funk movement of the time.
"The first time I sang my song 'Video' was at Black Lily, and I remember looking out into the audience and seeing a girl doing a yoga stretch, and that was totally something I would do," recalled Arie. "Since then, I have felt at home because of the support I get there."
At Thursday night's Keswick Theatre set, she will play songs from her newly released holiday collection, Christmas With Friends, a collaboration with jazz icon Joe Sample, who died last year at 75. The 10-song collection features standards such as "Silent Night," "The Christmas Song," and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
The collection of jazz-infused holiday classics was originally scheduled to be released last year, but with Sample's death, Arie decided to shelve the project temporarily.
In the meantime, she reached out to singers like Tori Kelly, Kem, Gene Moore Jr., and Khristian Dentley of Take 6 fame for duets. Her friend Brandy Norwood was already included on a rendition of "Silent Night."
"My mom kept bringing it up, but I didn't want to do it," she said. "But then I met with Joe Sample to work on original music, and it was going slow because writing takes time. And then I had the idea to do Christmas songs, and it turned out his family had been asking him, too. We started working on a list of songs with those Joe Sample arrangements, and we inspired each other."
Arie says that during the production of the album in Houston, Sample did not appear sickly and was excited about the music.
"He was an older person who was dealing with health issues, but he was fun to be around," she said. "He was straightforward about his music and honest with me. We ate and told stories and had a really good time in the studio."
She said she enjoyed being challenged - as she was by another icon's bluesy, super-soulful rendition of "Merry Christmas Baby."
"Michael McDonald sent the vocal, and when I heard it, he went so hard and over the top, it made me go back and redo my version," she said. "The first time I heard it, I laughed so hard because he was going all-out, so I just tried to match him."
In typical India.Arie fashion, she says the audience at the Keswick Theatre can expect a spontaneous set that includes Christmas songs and material from her gaudy catalog (21 Grammy nominations and four wins).
"I'm always honest with my audience, so I'll just tell them that we're going to be kind of loose," she said. "When you have top-notch musicians, you are able to do that, and really great stuff comes out."
Christmas with Friends
8 p.m. Thursday at the Keswick Theatre, 291 N. Keswick Ave., Glenside.