By Danny R. Johnson- Jazz and Pop Music Critic
In 1969, Nina Simone told Ebony Magazine, “I hope the day comes when I will be able to sing more love songs when the need is not quite so urgent to sing protest songs. But for now, I don’t mind.”
This tension shaped much of her career. While many of her most popular hits were her covers of love songs such as “I Loves You, Porgy” and “I Put a Spell on You,” civil rights activists canonized her as “The High Priestess of Soul” for composing and singing the protest songs “Mississippi Goddam” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”
But Nina Simone also transcended musical categorization altogether. She could imbue a torch song with such potency and resistance that she often ended up redefining the very meaning of the song itself. For how else we can explain Simone’s transformation of the love song, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” whose original melody and chorus lyric was written by Horace Ott after a temporary falling out with his girlfriend, Gloria Caldwell, into what sounds like a musical meditation on racial suffering and black existentialism.
That she was able to capture the breadth of the sixties, those “years of hope and days of rage,” as author Todd Gittlin calls them, in song form was a feat that few artists dared to attempt and even fewer achieve. But it is just this complexity — of her sound and that era — that “Ledisi Sings Nina,” a tribute album recently released by Ledisi Anibade Young, better known simply as Ledisi, an American R&B and jazz recording artist, songwriter, music producer, author, and actress, hit the right spots.
Spearheaded by moving and unique arrangements by Ledisi and the production team of The Metropole Orkest conducted by Jules Buckley, The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra conducted by Adonis Rose, Lizz Wright, Alice Smith, and Lisa Fischer, the album features seven tracks who cover a variety of musical genres and range.
The result is an album that at times feels rightfully nostalgic, at other moments profoundly contemporary. Its diverse mix of voices sometimes veers towards the unwieldy and inconsistent and, depending on which artist and on which song, gets close to the spirit of Simone herself.
In many ways, the album is as much homage to as it is from Simone’s musical children. It opens with a bold declaration of “Feeling Good” and closes with Ledisi’s masterful cover of Nina’s classic, “I’m Going Home.” In between, it covers a spectrum of moods and perhaps even social movements.
But next to Simone, this album mainly showcases Ledisi’s breadth and talent. Her extended version of “Feeling Good” captures both soulful and hopelessness; her take on “My Baby Just Cares for Me” is defiant and daring.
All the tunes on this album offer the most significant challenges. However, they are also the ones where Ledisi makes the strongest impression. Her take on Simone’s classic “Work Song” is a faithful adaptation that, combining Ledisi’s own powerful contralto and superb backup from the band, is one of the best professional renditions of this most coveted of Simone’s songs. And yet it is her rhapsodic and lengthy version of “Ne Ne Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me)” proves why Ledisi is such an exceptional songstress. Sampling Simone, Ledisi’s rhyme is reminiscent of the historical breadth, political insight, and lyrical playfulness and urgency her fans feared that they might not hear again.
That the album changes so much, though, is strangely its form of tribute. Simone’s albums were inherently eclectic, as she often switched genres from song to song and sometimes within one piece itself. In the end, listeners might leave wondering how Ledisi was able to carry the weight of a full Simone tribute album by herself and did it so magnificently! More appropriately, Ledisi closed with Simone on her terms — the voice that set these artists and the nation musically free in the voice that set these artists and the nation musically free in the first place.