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Kim Nalley Takes on Nina Simone, With Mixed Results

June 17, 2011

San Francisco jazz singer kicks off five-week series of Simone covers

When Kim Nalley finished leaning into the final poignant lines of “I Loves You Porgy” during her tribute to Nina Simone at the Rrazz Room last night and her band’s final chords and cymbal tings rippled to nothingness, the jazz vocalist abruptly changed gear and launched into a lecture on the art and business of the musical arrangement.

“John Coltrane made ‘Favorite Things’ his own, but arrangers rarely get paid for their work,” Nalley said, with a note of complaint in her voice. “The royalties go to the original composers.”

Arranging, or “the art of giving existing melody musical variety,” as the American Federation of Musicians describes the term, is the currency of jazz, even if its practitioners lack financial rewards. No self-respecting artist would dream of getting up on stage to perform a standard in exactly the same way as one of his or her forbears.

But if last night’s performance reveals anything about the art of vocal arrangement, it’s that sometimes there’s no shame in singing a tune “straight.”

Simone herself is a member of the elite club of jazz performers whose versions of previously written tracks have come to be seen as definitive. Ever since 1958 when she shot to stardom with her breakout hit version of George Gershwin’s soulful love song from “Porgy and Bess,” Simone’s interpretive skills were on display, even though some jazz aficionados might argue that most vocalists merely imbue songs with their stylistic colorings rather than create arrangements in the technical sense of the word.

Nalley, too, is known for putting a strong spin on her source material. Her feisty renderings of familiar melodies, whether Christmas carols, gospel songs or jazz standards, toy with the lyrics, displace traditional climaxes and experiment liberally with techniques like yodeling and scat. Even when she played the role of Ella Fitzgerald in a musical drama she wrote herself about the legendary singer’s rise to fame (“Ella: The American Dream,” performed at the Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma in 2008 and 2010), Nalley eschewed imitating the singer’s vocal approach.

At its most engaging moments, “She Put a Spell on Me: Kim Nalley sings Nina Simone,” the title of Nalley’s five-week-long Rrazz Room residency which runs through July 17, walks this narrow line. All too often, however, Nalley’s desire to imbue songs that Simone famously sang with her own imprimatur undermines their strength.

Her set changes nightly. It’s based on Nalley’s own 2006 Grammy Award-shortlisted Simone tribute album and blends the vocalist’s freewheeling interpretations of numbers from the Nina Simone songbook with narration about the historical context surrounding the music.

The most memorable parts of last night’s two-hour-long journey occurred when the singer seemed to stop trying to create radical “rearrangements” of Simone’s efforts.

For instance, Nalley’s refreshingly unaffected version of the Oscar Brown Jr. ballad, “Forbidden Fruit,” had a zesty-cheeky slant that is absent from Simone’s more plodding take. The accomplished band members (pianist Tammy Hall, guitarist Greg Skaff, drummer Kent Bryson and bassist Michael Zisman) gave the song’s Adam and Eve story a sweetly naive undertow with their staccato interjections between verses.

Nalley performed “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” with similar unpretentiousness. The musicians swung Billy Taylor’s song with energy and commitment, making the melody and lyrics resonate freely beyond any specific interpretation.

Most of the rest of the show didn’t live up to these sparkling moments, however. Nalley worked hard to create a unique vision for “Feeling Good,” a song penned by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse from the musical “The Roar of the Greasepaint – the Smell of the Crowd” which became closely associated with Simone when she covered it on her 1965 album “I Put a Spell on You.” But Nalley’s scrambling of the lyrics and climaxes seemed forced.

Her take on the 1920s Broadway tune “Love Me Or Leave Me” was also unsatisfying. It was as if the singer was deliberately trying to undermine the rhythmic drive that Simone brought to the number with her more monotone recasting that lacked the pulse necessary to give the ostinato-like melody shape.

Moving about the space in a flowing black strapless sundress and headscarf (in a nod to her muse’s style), Nalley radiated a sense of drama and fun throughout. The connection with her audience was palpable. However, Nalley’s vocal stylings seemed more affected than artistically engaging on the whole. Habits such as singing slightly flat on held notes and then using vibrato to right the pitch, injecting short yodels and overdoing a rasping, Louis Armstrong-like “growl,” neither did justice to Simone’s legacy nor made us hear the songs in exciting new ways.



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