NINA SIMONE/ “Feeling Good”
What’s happening, beautiful people?
This is Mtume, coming at you with my last three posts for Breath of Life. I know, I know: wipe your tears, take a deep breath, and climb back in from that ledge. None of you have any idea how you’re going to continue without me, but I promise, it’s gonna be okay. ;-)
Seriously though. Kalamu and I started doing Breath of Life back in June of 2005. Since then, we’ve both written hundreds of posts and uploaded thousands of hours of music. Here’s the thing though: back in June ’05, I was a single sedentary guy living by myself and working a job that allowed me to listen to music upwards of twelve hours per day. Today, I’m a married guy who runs [literally: Mtume’s a marathon runner —kalamu] 30 – 40 miles per week with a job that doesn’t allow me to listen to music at all, plus I have custody of my ten-year-old son and I have another little one on the way.
So things are different for me, very different. After trying all sorts of things to free up enough time to keep on listening and writing as much as I can to hold up my end of BoL, I having to admit I just can’t do it. Not well, at least.
But look, this ain’t no fucking funeral. This is a music blog. Instead of just fading away, I decided to go out with a bang. I’m going to do all three categories this week, and I’m going to fill them with some of the best music and artists I and Kalamu have posted over the last three years. Hopefully, y’all will dig this last jukebox as much as I know I will.
* * *
Oh, BTW, before we get to the music, y’all should know that Breath of Life isn’t done. Far from it. Kalamu has pledged to keep things going. He’s going to change the format some, maybe get into some different types of music, possibly invite in a few guest posters, but in any event, he’s not quitting. And, you know I’ll be around from time to time too. Even though I can’t keep doing it every week, I love music too much and I’m too opinionated to stop altogether. If y’all keep checking this site, you’ll no doubt hear from me from time to time. Aight, that’s that. Let’s get to some tunes.
* * *
Once Kalamu and I decided I was going to do these last posts, I had to figure who I was going to feature. As I thought back over the last three years’ worth of classic posts, I realized there were only two artists in contention: the brilliant blues goddess Nina Simone and the equally talented genius of a composer, Gil Scott-Heron.
In the end, I decided to go with Nina, mainly because I’ve spent the last three years as much learning about her music as sharing it. I grew up with Nina Simone records in the house, but once I started building my own collection, Nina was only a peripheral part of it. As Breath of Life went on, as the weeks went by and I’d post something from Nina, and then Kalamu would post something by Nina, and then I’d throw up a cover by Nina and Kalamu would talk about a remix of a Nina track, I came to realize that this woman was one of the towering figures in the history of American music. Whether she’s interpreting the work of others (something she excels at) or singing something of her own, the depth and breadth of Nina’s music far exceeded my expectations. I consider myself a learned fan of black music, but I simply had no idea how good this woman actually was.
With no further ado, here’s a Nina mix, compiled from tracks that either Kalamu or I have posted in the last three years. There’s some truly lovely sounds in here. Hope y’all dig it.
1. “Feeling Good”
– From I Put A Spell On You
If I had to pick just one, this is probably my all-time favorite Nina Simone record. From the intro (sans musical accompaniment) to the soaring outro, it’s pure magic.
I got curious as to the origin of the song and discovered that it’s a Broadway tune, originally composed for and performed in a show named The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd
. Written and composed by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, the show opened in 1965, had a long and successful run and was nominated for numerous awards including several Tonys.
One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about Nina Simone is the way she creates or infuses her own meaning into others’ work. That isn’t to disparage the original work, it’s just to say that Nina is such a musical force that she frequently makes more of a piece than even the composers themselves may have intended.
I have no idea what the context of the original “Feeling Good”
is, but in Nina Simone’s hands it sounds like a joyful declaration of optimism in the face of discrimination, intimidation and struggle. It’s also one of my favorite records ever recorded by anyone.
2. “Funkier Than A Mosquitos Tweeter”
(Jazzeems All Styles Remix) – From Remixed & Reimagined
(Sony Legacy, 2006)
Kalamu dropped this gem on us back in November of 2006. At the time he said, “’Tweeter’ is more than a great remix, it is a total reimagining that retains the spirit of Nina Simone but presents it as though Nina recorded it last month.” I agreed, calling the record “a miracle,” and “the best remix I’ve ever heard of an old record.” It’s almost a couple years later and I have to say we got this one right. What a fantastic record.
– From Let It All Out
I could be wrong, but I don’t think we ever actually posted this original. (We actually may have focused exclusively on a remix called “Dance Naked Under Palm Trees.” In any event….) It’s a lament – a mournful one but oddly inspirational too.
The lyrics Nina is singing were originally written by Harlem Renaissance-era poet Waring Cuney as part of a poem entitled “No Images.” In the poem, a young black woman thinks she’s ugly because her surroundings give her no opportunity to see, feel or understand her own beauty. Or, as Cuney put it (with a tone of heartbreaking impassivity): “Dishwater gives back no image.”
4. “Don’t Explain”
– From Let It All Out
This one’s from a recent (May of ’08) post. I’ll just quote what I said then:
Nina takes on one of Billie’s signature records and turns it into something that sounds like a fresh, bloody wound. It’s quiet, painful and bound to get nothing but worse. I would’ve made this one the feature track but we can’t feature Nina every week, can we?
On second thought, maybe we could. Nobody does sadness like Nina.
– From Baltimore
July of 2006. From a specific blues about a specific woman to a general blues about an entire damned city. And actually, it was even more than that. Although Randy Newman wrote this tune with mid-Seventies-era Baltimore in mind, he could also have been talking about Chicago or the Bronx or New Orleans or any of the other many, many black and mixed-race urban centers across the country that were (intentionally?) decimated by government “development” and “progress” in the form of freeways that connected the inner cities to the then-new suburbs.
Kalamu could tell you all about what happened to the once prosperous Claiborne Ave. corridor in New Orleans once the powers-that-be decided to run interstate 10 right through that bad boy. At one time, there were thriving black-owned businesses up and down Claiborne and there was a wide green expanse in the middle where families would gather for Mardi Gras or just to get together. Then the cement mixers and dump trucks and cranes moved in. Needless to say, Claiborne Ave. turned ugly and remains fucked up to this day. Nina’s “Baltimore” is a eulogy to a way of life that the government effectively killed off.
6. “The Other Woman”
– From Live At Drury Lane
I’ve heard Nina called a jazz singer and I believe she herself liked to refer to her music as “black classical.” Personally, I think of her as a blues singer. There’s more than one side to the blues though. Sometimes it’s a downer; other times it’s just funny.
This song starts out gentle and meditative but Nina gets more intense as she goes. By the end, she’s dropping hilarious asides (“they say they want a natural woman – then they get one; scares ‘em half to death!”) and laughing at herself as she tries to make it through the lyrics. The audience’s constant laughter doesn’t make things any easier.
7. “Feelin’ Good”
(Joe Claussell Remix) – From Verve Remixed
Let’s end where we started. From way back in October of 2005, it’s the elegant Joe Claussell remix of my favorite Nina performance, “Feeling Good.”
Joe not only lays Nina’s vocals over a lush, bass-heavy track of his own creation, he also chooses once or twice to electronically alter Nina’s notes. It should sound like sacrilege-in-progress but it actually works out just fine. Nice keyboard solo too.
—Mtume ya Salaam
Nina, Nina, Semper Nina
Always. And forever: Nina Simone.
When we began Breath of Life I didn’t consciously recognize the unparalleled majesty and magnitude of Nina Simone's musical contribution. I was already a big, big fan and she was certainly my personal favorite vocalist but I would not have immediately ranked her as the number one vocalist of all time. I proclaim it now: Nina Simone is unequaled as a performer. No other vocalist approaches both the depth and timelessness (not to mention timeliness
) of Nina Simone’s music.
Think about it. There may be a handful of other performers who were more popular but none who produced so much profoundly serious music.
Here are two links for those who are serious about Nina Simone.
The Nina Simone Web
is the Rosetta Stone of Nina’s recorded work. The site not only provides a quick discography with album covers covering Nina’s official releases beginning in 1957 and concluding in 1993, The Nina Simone Web
also has detailed recording information (dates, personnel) and a searchable database to look up songs by title or composer. The Nina Simone Web
offers the definitive discography.
L’hommage: Nina Simone
, simply put, this site offers everything publicly available that you ever wanted to know about Nina Simone. In addition to what you would expect, the site also offers video performances. If you love Nina, you will love this site.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
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