Last night I watched a DVD of a Nina Simone concert and I learned a thing or two about her I didn’t know before.
I first discovered Nina Simone about 20 years ago – ever since she’s been one of my icons. I get shivers up my spine whenever I listened to her sing Dylan’s Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues or Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne. I explored the incredible diversity of her repertoire. I loved that she could handle anything – show music, children’s songs, folk music, pop anthems, jazz standards, protest songs – and make whatever she sang a Nina Simone song. I loved her voice. I saw the tail end of her career, and her impact was often diminished by poor recordings – sadly, her voice gave out in the end.
Back in 1976 Nina Simone was 43. She’s filmed in closeup throughout the concert. I could see an incredibly charismatic, powerfully emotional personality, and that she was a very beautiful woman, even in her 40s. Here was an intelligent woman who thought about her emotions and the world she lived in. There seemed a lot going on inside her and only a small portion of it was expressed.
Nina talked to the audience about some of the things in her mind. Then, abruptly, she sat down and played the piano. At some stage she said, I’m a pianist, the singing was just an accident, something she’s often said. She played some of the best piano I’ve ever heard. She played rhythm section on the bass keys while the drummer showed off, she played improvisational jazz chords, she played powerful classical crescendos. Nina played piano with a range and flair that I think few other pianists could match. She held the show together effortlessly with her piano, with only a percussionist to support her, and the sound was flawlessly recorded. I realised that a lot of her studio work has featured her vocal and that her backing combo has often not featured her piano, which seems more in evidence in her live recordings. Throughout the concert I got the feeling I was just seeing the tip of the iceberg, that she was capable of far more.
The audience loved her but they did not give her her due. She was just back from her residence in Liberia and I thought she seemed to want an African response, the rhythm clapped in unison, the chorus chanted in point and counterpoint. She got instead a fairly staid and sporadic applause, the faces in the crowd mostly expressionless. The men had long hair and beards, someone was smoking a joint (1976, right!) yet they looked conservative. Someone yelled at her for talking too much and asked her to start singing a song. I thought this might be why she was such an emotionally powerful performer, because she had never connected emotionally to her satisfaction with people in her personal life.
There were only six songs in the ’76 set: Little Girl Blue; Backlash Blues; Be My Husband; I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to be Free); Stars / Feelings; African Mailman. Nina was a little high on the night, she was just back from Africa, she’d spent time with her daughter, she was bitter about what was happening in America. Whatever. I have rarely heard such devastating emotion in a singer’s delivery. Whatever was happening in Nina’s life, happiness, torment, fear, despair – or all of them mixed together, it was in her tones as she sang. When I say Nina Simone was an emotionally powerful performer I don’t just mean that she felt powerfully. She harnessed her feeling to an incredibly skilled vocal and musical performance, and that takes a discipline that few people are capable of.
The DVD includes some tracks from Nina’s performances at Montreux in 1987 and 1990. Nina was 54 and 57, grown somewhat portly and much more self contained. She now had a band behind her, stays behind her piano, engages a lot less with the audience and does more of a self consciously ‘entertainment act’. You’ll enjoy the music: Someone to Watch Over Me; My Baby Just Cares For Me; I Loves You Porgy; Liberian Calypso; Four Women / Mississippi Goddam; Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me). But if you’ve not seen them before, you’ll never forget the ’76 versions of I Wish I Knew and Stars/Feelings.
Someone like this doesn’t happen very often.
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