Jazz Icons: Live in '65 and '68
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2008, Volume 15, #12
Written by John Metzger
Tue December 2, 2008, 06:30 AM CST
Throughout her lifetime, Nina Simone used her position of influence to change the rules of society. There’s no question, though, that in the process, she willingly traded some of her popularity for the ability to make a positive difference in the world at large. When her personal life fell apart in the early 1970s, Simone retreated from public life, and as a result, she became something of a forgotten entity. Since her death in 2003, however, Simone’s catalogue has been revisited on several occasions, and each time that her profile has been elevated, a greater portion of her legacy inevitably has been restored. Released nearly in conjunction with To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story — the stellar, career-spanning overview that recently was assembled by Legacy — Jazz Icons: Live in ’65 and ’68 fills in a few more gaps in her storied history.
A masterful performer, particularly in a live setting, Simone clearly knew how to reach her audience most effectively at any given point in time. With the two shows that are featured on Jazz Icons: Live in ’65 and ’68, she demonstrated that there is more than one way to frame a message. In the earlier show, which was recorded on Christmas Day in Holland, Simone unleashed an almost relentless firestorm of emotion. This is the way that many remember her, and although it is, at times, a raw, edgy, and uncomfortable performance, it also is impossible to turn away from her mesmerizing presence.
Simone had a knack for luring her followers into her tales of hardship and struggle, though she also had a habit of challenging them to keep pace with her point of view. Such was the case in Holland, where she daringly opened with a hauntingly intense cover of Brown Baby. Witnesses to the event were plunged into the midst of her Civil Rights activism, and the camera angles, which were tightly focused upon her face, caught every mood she felt as she delivered the tune. Likewise, Four Women was as chilling as it was elegant and poignant, and Bob Dylan’s The Ballad of Hollis Brown played like a miniature symphony that was adorned with jazz instrumentation. The circular, rhythmic progressions she spun on piano did more than simply form a trance-like cadence that mirrored the cyclical nature of life and poverty depicted in the latter track; it also captured the manner in which the music consumed her, controlled her, and ultimately spilled forth with unstoppable force. It was only during the playful Go Limp where she pulled back the reins of her anger, her sorrow, and her frustration, though this, too, served primarily to make Mississippi Goddam more potent.
Recorded in England in 1968, the second concert featured on Jazz Icons: Live in ’65 and ’68 is both shorter and less confrontational. Although her message largely was the same, Simone’s demeanor was friendlier and, hence, more agreeable. Her song choices bore this out, too, if not by their thematic tone, then definitely by her stylistic, rock-oriented approach. On the breezy Ain’t Got No / I Got Life, Simone explored the polarity of perspective, urging those who wallow in misery to become self-reliant. She revisited this concept during Why? (The King of Love Is Dead), which sounded more like an optimistic benediction than a mournful epitaph.
Although its opening act comes close, neither of the shows on Jazz Icons: Live in ’65 and ’68 is perfect. Nevertheless, taken together, they provide an insightful glimpse at Simone’s unwavering ability to entrance an audience and get them to follow her wherever she wanted to take them. ˝
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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