Nearly 54 years ago in the fall of 1961 Nina Simone performed at The Village Gate in New York City and delivered a show that arguably ranks as one of the best live recordings in all of history. Throughout the course of At The Village Gate the listener can hear the clink of bar glasses, the enthused applause, the superb piano playing of Nina herself, and a tightly focused rhythm section. And of course, you will bear witness to her heart-stopping vocals, the like of which has been the model for jazz, soul and pop singers of every stripe since that time. Ask any credible singer whom they care to emulate – I dare say they won’t name Streisand or Fitzgerald or any of the current crop. Some might say Billie Holiday, while another might cite Dusty Springfield, but there’s nary a one who would say she wouldn’t like to sing with as much soul and artistry as Ms. Simone. And damn, she was one smokin’, bluesy pianist – for proof, listen to her swinging takes on the opener “Just In Time” and “Bye Bye Blackbird”. Diana Krall, take note – here is the standard, to which no one before or since has been compared without shortfall.
Think back to the state of American life in 1961, in real or imagined terms, if you will. Black performers suffered discrimination to no end. The black populace at large had no civil rights to speak of, and the protests in Mississippi were yet to come. Clubs such as The Village Gate were host to such music luminaries as Oscar Peterson, John Coltrane, and yes, Nina Simone, but hardly anyone but Nina dared to speak the truth about black life in such songs as “Brown Baby”, or “House Of The Rising Sun”. It was Nina’s version of the latter song, btw, which inspired The Animals, who in turn inspired Bob Dylan. Nina had a way, you see, of awakening the heart of the listener, of delivering a carefully-controlled piercing of the mind and emotions. Not even Aretha Franklin could do that. Certainly Paul Robeson could, but Nina triumphed above all other black female singers for her ability to create drama, characterization and believability. Some people call it “soul” and indeed, Nina was deemed to be “The High Priestess of Soul”, a term that Nina disliked for she felt it misrepresented her achievements and her approach. She was classically trained and knew all about dynamics, tempo changes; in fact she called what she did “black classical music”.
Here’s the important thing about Nina Simone – her music doesn’t sound dated, old, or formulaic, and it won’t fifty years from now. Were she appear today for the first time, she would quickly be pronounced a superstar. There’s simply no one like her, not Roberta Flack, not Whitney Houston, not Alicia Keyes. What they are attempting to do sounds histrionic, overdone, and strained compared to the artistry shown in almost every song performed on At The Village Gate. Witness “If He Changed My Name”, a soulful, near-acapella rendering of such superlative delivery that it becomes hypnotic. As for “Vaynikehu”, an Israeli number in 5/4 rhythm, Nina’s willingness to explore the music of other cultures may be one of the first such explorations of true world music. In this respect she is an unacknowledged pioneer, transforming this piece into a jazzy uptempo potboiler. And what she does with “Sinner Man” is a minor miracle, for her reworking of standard hymns is, for the listener, a voyage of discovery back to the essence. Not a small achievement, and one for which Nina deserves great credit as an arranger, an improviser, and a musical explorer.
The closing tune, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is one you probably know well, but until you’ve heard Nina play it, you haven’t fully experienced its power, delicacy and heart-rendering shimmering, radiant splendour.
Someone once said that there are only a dozen or so artistic experiences that truly speak to one’s soul during the course of a lifetime, and that the task of each of us so inclined is to find those dozen experiences. Nina Simone’s At The Village Gate is one such recording, almost beyond measure.