NINA SIMONE SILK & SOUL, 1967, RCA Victor
Sometime around eleven in the morning on April 22, 2003, I opened the L.A. Times and read the single best death announcement of all time:
NINA SIMONE, 70; MAVERICK SINGER, PIANIST PERFORMED COLLAGES OF PROTEST, HEARTBREAK.
Who wouldn’t give their eye-teeth to be remembered like that? Who has ever, by comparison, accomplished anything nearly as essential in their life’s work as those seven dazzling, profound little nouns, adjectives and verbs? I cut the whole obituary out and posted it on the communal fridge of the house I shared, a spiritual call to arms for my housemates and me. By the next day someone had taken it down and thrown it in the garbage.
The first time I ever heard her music was in the Bridget Fonda remake of La Femme Nikita. It was the only music the beautiful assassin could relate to in her lonely prison. Maybe it was a holdover from the French original. As I got older and did my requisite college tour through the history of jazz, she always hovered outside the magic circle, beyond category or definition. Not easily loved or understood. (Maybe just by men.)
Nina Simone is scary. Hers is the mocking lament of the murderess caught red-handed with the knife clenched in her fist; the fanatical hiss of the Pastor backing the Devil down the aisle of the church; the comforting whisper of the whiskey in the glass; the rustle of a lover under the covers; the cold lullaby of the Angel of Death lulling you to your last sleep. She has been called, and called herself the High Priestess of Soul. That is close, but not quite right.
For an artist of such lasting legacy, Nina Simone is a cipher, both eponymous and elusive, a household name and an enigma. She was a self-taught, classically-trained musician who only started singing to book the club dates that paid for her piano lessons, and she was also a songwriter of staggering, caustic power. But the author of “Mississippi Goddam,” “Four Women,” and “Turning Point” is also known to millions for “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” and other hits that fall politely into place with risk-free rom-com soundtracks and Pottery Barn special-edition point-of-sale CD’s. Somehow this is not a paradox.
Nina Simone reminds me of what the critic Harold Bloom said about Shakespeare. What you take away from reading Hamlet says more about you than it ever will about Shakespeare. No matter how many times you listen to Nina Simone, her personality—strong, vibrant, and critical as it was—remains outside the work. There is only the voice and the sound of the piano keys, surging like a frothy wave, falling like a drunken dancer, or brittle as a widow’s threadbare gaze. She is an alchemist whose instruments incorporate, dissolve and transfigure the whole of American music: folk ballads, the blues, jazz, vocal standards, Tin Pan Alley, classical, musicals, soul, Negro spirituals, gospel, rock, even, posthumously, hip-hop. She owns the whole damn American songbook, and in her brooding, restless tone you feel her devouring it, spitting it up for examination, willing it to say more...
Silk & Soul was her first album on RCA, in 1967, exactly ten years after Little Girl Blue launched her unexpectedly into the limelight. I can’t pretend to know her whole discography, but it feels like a classic when you hear it. The arrangements are full and warm, her backing band is tight and in the groove, and her vocals are full and rich and rangy; they fill all the space in the room from one wall to the other. She sings with power and confidence and grace, up and down the register, through her usual delicatessen of tones and styles. From the funky opener, “It Be’s That Way Sometime” (written by her brother) and other upbeat cuts (“Go to Hell,” “Some Say”) to covers (“The Look of Love,” “Cherish”), to bedroom songs (“Love O’ Love,” “Turn Me On”) to civil rights statements (“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” “Turning Point”) and finally to “Consummation,” a love song that transcends not just earthly cares, but the earth itself.
And that is where Nina Simone belongs. She isn’t a priestess, even a “High Priestess,” but a Goddess. A passionate, tender, veracious, angry goddess of the lineage of Hera, Hecate, Sekhmet and Siva. Take a look at her expression on the cover of Silk & Soul, reputedly a portrait of the way she appeared live onstage at the time. Was any other jazz diva, world-famous star ever pictured quite so candidly? She makes no pretension of seducing her listener. She looks down with clear eyes appraising the situation (or just the sheet music?) before her. Solemn. Dissatisfied. Unimpressed. But a Goddess, nonetheless.