NINA SIMONE / “Nina & Piano Mixtape”
Nina Simone is her own category.
Nina was a consummate concert pianist, a riveting vocal stylist, a trance inducing dancer, all contained within a fearless and charismatic personality. Nina absolutely refused to give in to the temptations of fame and fortune, or buckle under to the threats and persecutions designed to temper her rebellious spirit.
Rather than be a slave to the system, she escaped and died in exile in France.
She had gone way out there—a runaway who refused to return no matter how much the captains of industry insisted that conditions had changed. Although some would like to assess her mercurial personality as bi-polar or even schizophrenic, the truth is that whatever might have been medically or mentally wrong with Nina, both the etiology and sociology of the problem were firmly rooted within the larger American society. In other words we are no sicker than the social conditions that produce us.
Nina Simone completely redefined what it meant to be a professional recording artist. Moreover, as much as I dug her political stances and sentiments, what really, really moved me was her unsentimental, clear-eyed philosophical stances as an artist and as a human being.
Nina Simone & Piano! is a classic album even though most of us have never heard the recording and some of us even find the performance unlistenable. And in truth the performances are raw sometimes just short of ugly and painful. Nina cuts no slack. Not one radio-friendly, lovey-dovey selection—just Nina singing and accompanying herself at the piano in a fierce and uncompromising critical reflection mode.
I remember when Nina Simone & Piano! came out. I remember being astounded. It had the impact of a slap to the face in public, as well as a deep tongue kiss, also in public. It went through you like tossing back a straight shot of whiskey or a thirty-eight through the knee, which is to say it left you speechless and immobilized.
While most people were doing romantic love songs and popular show tunes, Nina was offering a PhD seminar in philosophy. She tackled all five branches: reflecting on the nature of our existence; investigating how we know whatever we think we know; considering what we do and should or shouldn’t do (especially to and with each other); defying social restrictions and creating alternative principles; and meditating on what life can and should be like. As an artistic statement, this 1969 recording is remarkable and unlike anything else released by a major artist.
The fourteen-track Nina Simone & Piano! has recently been re-mastered and reissued. The expanded edition includes four songs not issued on the original. The nine-track BoL Mixtape has one of the previously unissued selections, “The Man With A Horn,” as well as eight other selections. You can respond and/or judge them for yourself.
I find the tracks fascinating. In some cases Nina strikes the piano with a percussive deliberateness that matches the legendary Thelonious Monk. In a couple of other cases, her harmonic daring and pointillist fracturing of melodies are akin to Cecil Taylor. There was absolutely no danger that any of this would enter the billboard charts even though this was music every citizen of the USA should experience at least once in their lifetime, no mater how painful or disconcerting they might find such an experience.
Do not consider this an introduction to Nina Simone. This includes none of her better known or more influential songs. Do not consider this representative of her approach to making music even though it is immediately identifiable as Nina Simone. And for most of us, this is not desert island Nina Simone. Nevertheless, Nina Simone & Piano! is essential music for anyone and everyone who is serious about appreciating the import, impact and breadth of 20th century American music.
Nina Simone & Piano! is what music sounds like when the sounds are more than music. This is a life force, a once in a lifetime accomplishment. This is Nina Simone: naked, brutally beautiful, musically metaphysical.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Nina and Piano Mixtape Playlist
Nina Simone & Piano!
01 “Nobody's Fault But Mine”
02 “I Think It's Going To Rain Today”
03 “Everyone's Gone To The Moon”
04 “Another Spring”
05 “The Human Touch”
06 “The Desperate Ones”
07 “I Get Along Without You Very Well”
08 “The Man With The Horn”
09 “Who Am I?”
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