Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Nina Simone Live on Campus

Great Performances—Live College Concerts and Interviews
By Nina Simone
Orchard Music

Considering Billie Holiday’s sense of ownership of “Strange Fruit” and the song’s visceral lyrics, it remains a bold choice for vocalists. Of course, Nina Simone was not exactly a shrinking violet. As an artist who often sang socially conscious songs and deeply respected Holiday, it was in fact a logical choice or her repertoire. “Strange Fruit,” the grim protest song decrying lynching in Southern states, is indeed representative of Simone’s songs and philosophy, as recorded in Nina Simone: Great Performances—Live College Concerts and Interviews (trailer here), a previously unreleased treasury of Simone recorded live in 1968 at the University of Massachusetts and Morehouse College, now available exclusively on i-tunes, beginning today.

While Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” remains one of the definitive versions of the jazz standard, it is not included on College Concerts. Instead, setting the tone is Simone’s funky “Revolution,” with lyrics like: “Yeah, your Constitution. Well, my friend, its gonna have to bend.” However, when a Simone interview track is played on top of the song, it is difficult to distinguish either. It eventually bleeds into the first of two version’s Simone’s distinctive take on “My Way,” reconfigured into an anthem of female empowerment. Other thematically-related songs Simone interprets include: “Black is the Color,” and indeed, “Strange Fruit” (accompanied by gruesome archival photos).

A classically trained pianist, Simone usually sings from the piano bench, but does switch off with a second pianist on the rousing “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life.” By 1968, Simone had refined her sound, seamlessly mixing jazz, pop, and folk, frequently backed by guitars and multiple percussionists. Her performances often had a stark, dramatic quality, like the particularly pronounced folk sound of “Suzanne.”

Simone was a close friend of Raison in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry, whose work clearly inspired her music. Her rendition of the traditional “Take Me to the Water” is dedicated to the writer, and the title of her unfinished play directly inspired “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” co-written by Simone with her then music director, Weldon Irvine. In her 1968 performance, she dedicates it to the three hundred-some African-American students out of a student body of roughly fifteen-thousand, in what is probably the emotional high-point of either concert.

College Concerts collects some very deeply felt performances by Simone and also conveys a good sense of the time in which they were recorded. Like her 1976 Montreux set, her 1968 College Concerts is fascinating viewing both for the music it documents and what it reveals of her strong personality.