It takes guts for a singer to do a retrospective on the work of Nina Simone. Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn—Simone’s modern jazz contemporaries—had far more rich and melodious voices, but Nina had a presence, a duality that was both soft and mysterious and inviting as a Carolina deepwoods night and sharp and scary and sudden as a razor held aloft. The jazz and blues divas of her era lived their songs, but Nina embodied them. She was America’s practicing priestess vodoún—stately and black, simultaneously baring herself naked and frighteningly aloof—and modern singers attempt to take us down her path at their peril.
Well, either Kim Nalley has no fear, or she is damn good at not showing it.
In an hour-and-a-half tribute to Simone at the Berkeley BART Plaza on Sunday afternoon, pointedly taken without intermission, Nalley did not try to recreate Nina—who could, after all?—but interpreted her life and music in a way that made us appreciate both Nina’s pain and her greatness, in the way the soft, midnight moon reflects the long-departed light of a burning sun.
The concert was part of last weekend’s Downtown Berkeley Jazz Festival.
As remarkable as the concert itself—given with Nalley’s traditional sultry, sensual range—is that the singer was able to pull it off in the outdoor plaza while competing with passing buses, chattering children, and the occasional hip-hop beat coming from open car windows on Shattuck Avenue. That, if anything, marks the distinct difference between Nalley and Nina. Simone was the epitome of the proud diva, famous for sometimes halting her performances in mid-stanza to turn her eye on a couple conversing in low tones in the front row, fixing them with an icy stare, and remarking, coldly, “Oh, don’t mind me. I’ll wait until you’re finished.” Nalley has a different type of performance presence, drawing listeners into a special singing circle surrounding her that seems to magically mute any outside thoughts or sounds.
Interspersed with a running commentary that was also a lesson in history—both African-American and American in the whole—Nalley took the plaza audience from Nina’s early takes on 19th century African-American folk ballads (“In the Evening by the Moonlight” by the once-popular but now long-forgotten African-American composer James Bland, better known for his minstrel standards “O Dem Golden Slippers” and “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”), to the traditional woman’s lament “House of the Rising Sun” (Nalley reminded us that while male rock artists covered this song after Nina re-popularized it, only a woman’s touch makes you understand that this was about entrapment as a worker in a New Orleans whorehouse), to the blues standard “Trouble in Mind.”
Nina Simone was more than a singer—she was an accomplished composer and concert pianist—and Nalley re-created one of her most famous and controversial original compositions, “Mississippi Goddamn,” conceived in those dark and bitter times following the bombing of Montgomery Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church and the assassination of Mississippi NAACP Field Director Medgar Evers. “Mississippi Goddamn” was in a bouncy, irreverent, defiant mode (“a show tune for which the show has not yet been created,” Nalley quotes Nina as saying), and the Carnegie Hall concert audience who heard its world premiere must have thought, at first, that Nina was kidding. “Midway through the song,” Nalley tells us, just before she breaks into the line about the bloodhounds on her trail, “you can hear the point on the recording where the audience realizes she’s serious.”
The song, Nalley explains, turned Nina from a performer to a civil rights protester, eventually leading to her targeting by the FBI, and eventual exile from America.
Also notable in Nalley’s rendition was Nina’s interpretation of the Screaming Jay Hawkins signature piece “I Put a Spell on You,” in which both Nina’s and Nalley’s raw sexuality and spirit-woman wickedness are given full play, and in the closing, rousing “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” gospel great, with a rolling piano accompaniment by local pianist Tammy Hall that made even the atheists in the Berkeley audience want to jump up and shout.
A San Francisco transplant and UC Berkeley graduate, Nalley is a locally based band leader, producer, and vocalist who appears regularly at Bay Area venues. For those who missed the Berkeley BART Plaza concert, Nalley has thoughtfully provided us with a CD that compiles her musical tribute to Nina, “She Put a Spell on Me: Kim Nalley Sings Nina Simone,” that includes many of the songs performed on Sunday.