Silence is not always golden but in my case it was. I’ve been using most of my writing time for my weekly review column on www.watkykjy.co.za. I haven’t posted anything music related in a while on this blog. I’m not apologizing. Life happens and on this blog I don’t have timelines or deadlines. I just write whenever I’m inspired by an album or artist or whatever else comes my way. I’ve been listening to quite a lot of Nina Simone lately – on my own and with friends. I also bought two of her vinyl a while ago from Mr Vinyl. I’m not an aficionado on jazz at all and neither do I know her music extremely well. I am just curious as to why I love it so much. So this is probably more of an attempt to get answers for myself than an actual review. It may end up as one though. Who makes the rules, right?
So who was she? She wasn’t just a singer, pianist and songwriter but also a civil rights activist. Many of her songs are unapologetic political and when they’re not you can hear a kind of strength projected that can only come from someone who’s experienced some form of hardship in their lives. The rest of her songs are mostly about love – which is probably a hardship in itself. Lol! She was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tyron, North Carolina. Her mother was a Methodist minister and a housemaid. Her father was a handyman. The sixth child of eight children and as one can expect they were very poor. Like most black children in those days she performed at her local church. Her concert debut was at the tender age of twelve years old. A classical recital. During her performance her parents were forced to move to the back of the hall to make way for white people. She refused to continue the recital until her parents were moved back to the front. And so the seeds of injustice were planted in her young mind. Later in life she would use her fame to try and eradicate these wrongs by writing and performing several anti-racist and pro civil rights songs. She performed at many civil rights meetings as well.
Nina Simone’s musical style is quite complex. I find myself a bit overwhelmed as I try to classify it. You can hear the gospel influences first and foremost, but then you find an overpowering classical influence. After all, she was classically trained. The most obvious elements of her music are jazz and blues influences and she also explores folk and African music. But her soulful contralto voice is the most distinctive part. It’s haunting and melancholy and it can’t be copied. It’s one of a kind. Her very presence on stage, and her ability to connect with the audience was always second to none.
So the vinyl I’m listening to right now is Live at the Village Gate. The album was recorded in 1962. It was her third live album on Colpix records. It was recorded live at a nightclub in Greenwhich Village, New York. She was still young and the way in which her vocals blend in and flow with the piano is especially noticeable on this album. It is simply an amazing recording that reflects the era in which it was recorded and the atmosphere of the nightclub. No recording gimmicks. If you close your eyes you’ll find yourself magically transported back in time. Sitting in the audience all suited up with a cigar and some champagne. Next to you, a stylish dressed woman – smiling at you as the grooves slowly seduces both of you.
Listening to this album on vinyl is just pure magic. Just in time is not only one of her well known songs but it has been immortalised in popular cinema culture. It features in the movie Before Sunset (2004), the sequel to Before Sunrise (1995). The film picks up the story in Before Sunrise of the young American man (Ethan Hawke) and French woman (Julie Delpy) who spent a passionate night together in Vienna. Their paths intersect nine years later in Paris, and the film takes place in real time as they spend an afternoon together talking. Hawke’s character is supposed to catch a flight back to the United States but gets drawn into the conversation with Delpy, at first very civil and superficial but then they get more and more honest about their feelings for each other until they end up in her apartment listening to this very album, and of course he misses his flight. Nina Simone will do that to you:) They couldn’t have chosen a better song. It’s extremely sexy but at the same time it has a certain quality that leaves you vulnerable. It’s absolutely timeless.
He was too good to me is one of the most beautiful love songs Ive ever heard. If songs lasted an eternity you would get lost in this song and never find your way back home. Luckily songs only last a few minutes.
On Bye Bye Blackbird the jazz takes over entirely with an extended jamming session – taking you by the hand and pulling you into a Nina Simone standing-in-one-place kind of dance.
On songs like Brown Baby and If he changed my name it’s just her and the piano. The melancholy is at times almost tangible. Not many artists will have the gall to do it in the first place, never mind the ability to sound that good with just the nakedness of one voice and the minor assistance of the piano. It would be too daunting. Nina Simone pulls it off as if she invented it. Well, she did!
On Children go where I send you her gospel revival roots are exquisitely revealed. You can picture her standing right in front of the church raising the spirit of the churchgoers as the music snowballs into tribal and spiritual reverence and eventually hallelujah ecstasy.
But there is also a lot of folk music on this album. Like Zungo for instance. It’s a Nigerian chant written by Michael Babatunde “Baba” Olatunji which she effortlessly weaves into her jazz repertoire. Africans are used to it but it must have sounded outlandish to the New Yorkers back then. Her rendition of the folk song The House of the Rising Sun (made popular by the Animals) is done in true Nina Simone style. Jazzy and probably the most passionate version of the song ever recorded.
It’s pretty obvious why I love her music. Rest in Peace Nina Simone.
Check out this vinyl, it’s a European reissue (VP80041) pressed in 2014. It has three bonus tracks on that’s not part of the original pressing namely Black is the colour of my true loves hair, the Other Woman and Summertime.
Check out Mr Vinyl’s stash at http://www.mrvinyl.co.za/