Nina Simone was an iconoclast of the first water, someone who backed down for no one, stood her ground fiercely, and poured out rage, stunned perplexity, and sympathy in equal measure, all in an artistic context I'm not sure has ever been tried again. Watching this set of two rare performances, I think her legacy has now been set in stone, and I defy anyone to classify what she's doing.
Simone was adamant that she was not a jazz pianist or singer, she was a folk musician. She found the word 'jazz' to be pejorative to her race and would not stand to have it applied to her…and she was damn right. Throughout this entrancing collection of twelve songs, she floats in a zone untouched by others, not Baez, not Dylan, not Ochs, not Guthrie, not anyone. Search though I may, I can't locate a proper comparative, not even in the more radical performers like Dory Previn…and Simone had Previn beat by miles.
Few have commented on it but Simone was also an actress, and her face alone could express a bewilderingly subtle flurry of emotions. In Brown Baby, the opening cut, she's stunned, an intellect beaten into numbness by the way of the world and its hideous depredations but determined to survive and defend her territory. Then several other cuts reverse that and lay into oppressors with vigor, unwilling to sit and take it.
Simone was not a timid soul. When she heard of a Klan church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, the one that killed four little black girls in Bible study, she set out to make herself a zip gun and kill someone in retaliation. Fortunately, her husband was an ex-NYC detective and talked her down…resulting, within an hour's time, in her classic Mississippi Goddam. Nina Simone was not your average take-it-and-shut-up Middle-American. For that virtue, we who tend to cynicism and agitation might want to forego the pseudo-rebellions of televison and radio, looking a good deal more to people like her.
There was also a goodly dose of humor in Simone's work, and her backing bands reflected it. Not everything was anger, but the woman was dead serious when she railed against injustice, social stupidity, and brutality…and God help the individual who came under her glare. I'll venture to say, without having seen the entirety of this landmark collection (23 volumes so far), that this release must be the most unique of them all. To watch this woman sit at her piano and pour her heart out is a unique artistic and emotional experience, one not to be taken lightly and as rare an event as the justice she so longed for.
Links to the reviews of the other DVDs in this set:
Edited by: David N. Pyles
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