Category Archives: people music

Nina Simone – Young, Gifted, and Black

nina-superjumbo

Monday would have been Nina Simones 84th birthday; and, while Andre already did an excellent job of commemorating the occasion, I thought I’d pitch in with this review of some reissues I wrote way back in 2006 (!). Incidentally, one of the albums, Nina Simone Sings the Blues, was remastered late last year by the Vinyl Me, Please record of the month club; if you’re a member, you can still pick it up.

Over the course of her almost 50-year performing career, Nina Simone was many things to many different people. She was the husky-voiced blues goddess of “See Line Woman” and “Feeling Good”; the fearless Civil Rights crusader of “Old Jim Crow” and “Mississippi Goddam”; the sophisticated “High Priestess of Soul” who gave her definitive 1966 album its name. That is precisely why the essence of Simone is so difficult to capture on a single disc: to try and boil down a career as long, as varied, as singularly eclectic as hers into just a handful of iconic moments is an exercise in futility.

Thankfully, the compilers of a recent set of reissues understand that fact. Playing to just three of Simone’s many strengths, they wisely highlight each with a disc of its own: Sings the Blues and Silk & Soul, both originally released in 1967, cover their self-explanatory genres with the comfortable ease of a woman who had been blending them for years; while Forever Young, Gifted & Black: Songs of Freedom and Spirit compiles politically-minded highlights and rarities from the late ’60s. Granted, some might argue that these releases are inherently flawed, hailing as they do from the singer’s less renowned tenure at RCA rather than her two trailblazing years with Phillips. But if listening to this music with fresh ears proves anything, it’s that there’s a timelessness to all of Simone’s work, which no amount of critical grumpiness could ever erase.

© Legacy Recordings

© Legacy Recordings

As a matter of fact, these albums work a hell of a lot better than they have any right to. The track listing to Forever Young, Gifted & Blacks may read at first glance like a senseless grab bag of Civil Rights Nina: a single here, an alternate take there, a smattering of live cuts to fill the gaps. But the music within is never less than interesting, and often revelatory. Three excerpts from Simone’s performance at the Westbury Music Fair on April 7, 1968, a mere three days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, are the obvious highlights: a performance so charged that the stage banter by a shell-shocked, emotional Simone rivals the music for intensity. “Do you realize how many we have lost?” she asks before the rousing final chorus of “Why? (The King of Love is Dead),” a tribute to Dr. King originally released in edited form on Simone’s live album ‘Nuff Said!, here expanded to its full thirteen minutes. “They’re shooting us down one by one.” Next, she invokes the Birmingham Four and launches into an incendiary rendition of “Mississippi Goddam” that threatens to leave its better-known counterpart (from 1964’s Nina Simone in Concert) in the dust. “The King of Love is dead! I ain’t ’bout to be non-violent, honey!” she exclaims before the last verse, demonstrating in just thirteen words the miles of difference four years can make in the national consciousness.

The Westbury tracks are indeed something of a double-edged sword for the compilation: they leave one salivating over the prospect of a full-length release for that concert, while making the rest of the CD we do have look rather hodge-podge by comparison. But Forever Young, Gifted & Black still manages to hold together as an enjoyable listening experience. The Lorraine Hansberry-quoting title track, a vibrant collision of gospel exultation and pomp reverence, remains one of Simone’s most immediate anthems, while the alternate versions of the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and Simone’s medley of “Ain’t Got No” and “I Got Life” from the musical Hair are both more intimate and more rollicking than their previously-released forebears. Finally, the collection is rounded out by a handful of album cuts: two live from New York City’s Philharmonic Hall in 1969 (already made available on 1970’s Black Gold), two from 1969’s To Love Somebody, and one from Silk & Soul. Although I can’t help but wonder why these tracks weren’t passed over in favor of more rare material, they’re all hits rather than misses; and with a specially-commissioned new poem by Nikki Giovanni adorning the inner sleeve, who really has the heart to quibble?

© RCA Records

© RCA Records

In many ways more compelling than the collection, however, are the reissues of Sings the Blues and Silk & Soul: not just Simone’s two greatest albums for RCA, but, in the case of Sings the Blues, her single most successful excursion into the “raw” side of her music–and as we all know, Nina was about as raw as a Juilliard graduate could get. Though it may not contain anything quite as gritty as 1965’s neo-work song “Be My Husband,” Sings the Blues’ smoky juke-joint confessionals stand comfortably with Simone’s best work. It’s also a more expansive album than its name implies, containing everything from frank expressions of female sexuality like “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” “Buck,” and “Do I Move You,” to a railing anti-racism anthem co-written by Langston Hughes (“Backlash Blues”), to a Gershwin cover (“My Man’s Gone Now”) and a version of “House of the Rising Sun” performed in the style of “Sinnerman.” The bonus tracks are few but worthy, and Sid McCoy’s weedy original liner notes, reproduced here, are also worth a laugh or two: “‘Sugar in My Bowl’ is one of those suggestive tunes successfully employing double entendre,” he explains.

© RCA Records

© RCA Records

Meanwhile, “It Be’s That Way Sometime” kicks off Silk & Soul in a funky, if somewhat mannered mode; the result, as Simone’s powerful vocals struggle for dominance with her lite-soul backing, is inspired, creating a tension that lasts throughout the whole record. Thus fiery, gospel-tinged “soul” like “Go to Hell” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” rubs shoulders with the “silk” of contemporary cocktail-pop standards “Cherish” and “The Look of Love,” and somehow she manages to pull it all off with equal skill. Throw in a few lesser-known bonus tracks (one of which, “Save Me,” carries a co-writing credit by one Aretha Franklin), and this trio of Nina Simone reissues has its third consecutive success.

There is, of course, more to the Nina Simone story than even these fine discs can tell; if her career remains impossible to encapsulate in just one CD, it’s hardly any easier to contain with three. Yet Sings the Blues, Silk & Soul, and Forever Young, Gifted and Black remain concise statements of three of Simone’s most appealing sides: the reincarnated blueswoman, the crafter and interpreter of soulful pop melodies, the poet of the African American experience. If there’s any chance that these CDs could bring a deeper understanding of Nina Simone to a new generation of listeners, then a better means to that end could hardly be imagined.

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Filed under 1960's, Aretha Franklin, Blues, civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr., Nina Simone, people music, Soul, soul jazz

Anatomy Of The Groove For The Brothers & Sisters Who Aren’t Here: “Talk To The People” by Les McCann

Les McCann was,in terms of my own personal musical exploration,an artist I was introduced to by my father exactly between my explorations of Stevie Wonder and Miles Davis. And that actually isn’t a bad way to describe the middle ground McCann’s sound had in terms of Miles’s harmonic richness and Stevie’s unusual melodic senses. After all,both artists were pretty equally jazz in terms of composition. Les McCann was a brilliant composer in his own right. So much so his album Invitation To Openness  was one which my father kept out at our old family summer camp at Pushaw Lake the entire year round.

Les McCann is probably most famous for his song recorded by electric sax pioneer Eddie Harris (another important jazz/funk story I’ll get into another time) called “Compared To What”. That song was written by another frequent collaborator in Eugene McDaniels. McCann just seemed to be bursting with creative energy as a pioneer of synthesizers along with Herbie Hancock in the emerging jazz/funk idiom during the first half of the 1970’s. Albums such as Layers explored this most fully. Both musically and conceptually,the Les McCann song that says it all for me is the title song to his 1972 album Talk To The People.

A gentle electric piano melody from McCann starts off the song before a ringing,bell like percussive rhythm comes in on the drums. As McCann raps,his band are whispering the song title in rhythm in the back round. That turns to lead and backup singing (McDaniels included) as the song begins. A heavily filtered bluesy wah wah rhythm guitar and a thick,bouncing bass line joins in as a huge swell of backup vocals joins in on the choruses. As each refrain and chorus progresses,the instrumentation builds to climactic intensity. And it gradually fades out until only the sound of people talking exists as it fades.

In today’s age of reactionary racism,sexism and general prejudice,”Talk To The People” exists in the world as almost an anthem for a possible solution. Its slow funk,penetrating rhythms and emotionally charged jazzy modulations do indeed speak a very important message for the human race. McCann talks about how a lot of the worlds problems even then stemmed from lack of communication and empathy. Lyrically he comes to the conclusion,even before the song gets going,”lets hate all that does not allow us to love”. That makes this a shining example of why jazz/funk is such an important music.

 

 

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Filed under 1970's, backup singers, drums, electric piano, Eugene McDaniels, Funk Bass, jazz funk, Les McCann, message songs, people music, rap, rhythm guitar

‘What’s Going On’ at 45: The Time Marvin Gaye Reminded Us That Only Love Could Conquer Hate

Marvin Gaye (1971) - What's Going On (Deluxe Edition 2001) (A)

Marvin Gaye had to fight Berry Gordy at Motown to get this album made and released. The label was transitioning from Detroit to Los Angeles at the time. Vietnam kept raging on,President Nixon was blowing a dog whistle to bring down the sociopolitcal revolts of the 60’s and Marvin was depressed. He decided to write an album from the point of view of his brother Frankie-coming back into an unwelcoming America from Vietnam. With the help of the Four Tops’ Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Motown’s bass maestro James Jamerson, Marvin came up with a musical masterpiece whose appeal is still evolving.

What’s Going On has a basic groove-a cinematic soul jazz sort of sound on just about every song. Marvin scats and improvises many of the vocal adlibs himself. The title song begins the album on a happier note-hoping that people will come to deal with the racial,political and ecological concerns Marvin is so troubled by. By the time of the instrumentally brilliant,percussive Latin soul stomp of “Inner City Blues”,Marvin has given up. He sings “make me wanna holler/throw up both my hands”. To this day,it’s really up to the given listener whether they feel Marvin’s mixed emotions here are cathartic or enervating.

Berry Gordy turned out to be very wrong that this album had no potential. Not only was it a huge commercial success for Marvin Gaye,but he could hardly go one concert after this without inserting the title song of this album into his set. That goes to show how sometimes,the artist making the music really has more of a finger on the pulse of the people than those peddling their raw creative material. In 2001,the album was expanded into a 2 CD deluxe edition. Upon hearing it,I went to Amazon.com and reviewed this new presentation of this 1971 classic on thoroughly musical terms:

How do you make a overly reissued album classic better? Well actually this one DOES-I love all the songs on ‘What’s Going On’-it’s a great album but I always felt that it was highly overproduced.This one starts with the original followed by a different variation on the same album called ‘the original Detroit Mix’-THIS version is far more understated in the finest Donny Hathaway tradition and truly brings out the richness of Marvin’s voice and the depth of his vision-the sparer arrangement actually better expresses the music’s message of urban and environmental blight.There’s still orchestration but it isn’t mixed so high.

It’s also forcing one to acknowledge how great a pianist Gaye is.And that’s why I highly recommend that those who purchased previous issues of this CD should go out and pick this set up-that along with a bonus disk of live material and outtakes make this the definitive version of this album-to such an extent myself bought this and gave my original CD issue of this album (in this case the tepid ripoff of 1994’s so called ‘deluxe edition’) to my dad,a fellow music lover who I felt would benefit from having the album in his collection alongside his other classics like The Beatles White Album,Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Superfly’ and John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ where it belongs!For those who want to replace an old copy of this CD with a better one LOOK NO FURTHER!For those you for whatever reason haven’t been initiated-well,what more can I say-there is no better place to come!

Marvin was seeking with this album,to quote George Clinton about funk in general,not to tell people what to think but that they CAN think. It begins with a black man who’d made good in the world. And him looking through the eyes of a loved one who wasn’t so lucky in that regard. He starts out with a degree of optimism. By the end of the album,one realizes how much of a thoroughly human figure Marvin Gaye was. By the time it ends, he has almost lost  hope. Especially with Jamerson’s bass lines,the instrumentation is what tends to carry the positivity through when even Marvin can’t anymore.

This is the type of album inspired a lot of artists to make what I refer to as “people music”-a type of message music that takes the ethnocentric melodies and rhythms of the artists back-round to express important ideas. Unintentionally, this album became the “people music” for Generation X . This is an intelligent and aware generation of Americans who often lacked focus and interest. And with the election of Gen Xer Barack Obama for two presidential terms in America, this album seemingly succeeded in getting a generation who didn’t want to get involved to find that way to bring  loving here today.

 

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Filed under 1960's, 1971, Berry Gordy, cinematic soul, Detroit, Frankie Gaye, Generation X, James Jamerson, Los Angeles, Marvin Gaye, message music, Motown, people music, Renaldo Obie Benson, Vietnam War, What's Going on