Archive for classical

Bye Bye Blackbird

Posted in Categories with tags , , on June 19, 2013 by Richard

Simone_AtVillageGateNina Simone’s rendition of the 1920s Tin Pan Alley standard ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, which appeared on her 1962 album At the Village Gate, provides a fine example of the artist’s classically-flavoured style. The version recorded by Simone and her band is an instrumental one; shorn of the familiar lyrics, the resulting performance showcases instrumental virtuosity, in particular the musical alchemy between Simone and guitarist Al Shackman. Simone’s piano introduction is restrained and elegant, initially offering few clues to the identity of the song, then allowing fragments of the melody to enter. After nearly two minutes, Simone shifts to comping at the piano as if for a standard jazz rendition of ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ and Shackman assumes the spotlight, the growing dynamism of his guitar work amplified and underlined by Bobby Hamilton’s drum fills. At 3:32 Simone asserts her leadership via an insistently repeated note that pecks at the “Blackbird” melody before developing first into a jazz solo, then alternating scattered jazz notes with waves of tones and scales more associated with the teleology of classical style. Yet, even as she channels the techniques of European virtuosi from Bach to Liszt, the addition, at the six-minute mark, of wordless, scatted vocals, “blackens” the music, claiming it for a jazz-singing tradition that leads from Louis Armstrong to Abbey Lincoln and beyond. To use a less explicit term (though its use is no less resonant in its racial implications), we could follow Farah Jasmin Griffin and Salim Washington in their description of the way Billie Holiday “blued” the material she performed.

This description of ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ runs the risk of suggesting that there are clear points when Simone switches from one style (jazz) to another (classical). For the purposes of analysis, of course, it is necessary to identify decisive, illustrative moments in the recording. Analysis requires at least the fantasy of stasis, of moments frozen long enough for interpretation to take place. Music, however, is a flowing, temporal experience and, while its temporal qualities do not make it resistant to analysis, we must remain alive to the ways in which various elements coalesce, mutate, relate, respond to, reflect and feed each other. The processes of “blackening” or “blueing” suggest ways by which we can recognize such flow in Simone’s work. The interlacing, or overlaying, of the scatted vocal with classical piano style on ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ highlights the extent to which we should stay alive to the hybridizing processes of musical performance even as we apply our attention to particular musical objects. Such processes are often recognized in discourse about music, for example when artists are described as “jazzing” or “jazzing up” pieces of music not previously associated with the genre of jazz. Nina Simone’s work invites us to see classical music as a process too, to note the inclusion into popular songs of certain signifiers of classical style (certain types of motivic figures, certain conventions, sections which are not “jazzed”, which stay close to “the rules”). Describing the music of Chicago, in his poem ‘The Windy City’, Carl Sandburg used the memorable phrase “they jazz the classics”; perhaps we could see Simone’s contribution to black classical music as a determination to “classicalize” jazz.

Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair

Posted in Categories with tags , , , on May 9, 2013 by Richard

While discussing the difficulty that critics had in categorizing her music, Simone claimed, “If I had to be called something it should have been a folk singer, because there was more folk and blues than jazz in my playing”. While we have to treat Simone’s self-categorizations with as much care as those of any other commentator, it is nonetheless worth considering her as a folk singer. As she suggests in her autobiography, one of the ways in which she was close to folk music and its audience was via her involvement in the Greenwich Village music scene and by the interest shown by (mainly white) folk music fans in blues music and musicians of the pre-War era.

In describing the time she spent performing in Greenwich Village, Simone highlights a growing desegregation in musical tastes and crowds:

The folk kids were discovering blues players that the jazz people knew so well they regarded them as old history, nothing to do with what was happening; but to the white kids it was somebody else’s history they were hearing, so it was new and exciting. And the jazz players had their ears and minds open to other influences – they had to, or else they wouldn’t be able to play like they did.

Some of the ways in which these worlds came together can be seen by considering the song ‘Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair’, which Simone regularly performed during her career. Often described in liner notes as a “Norwegian folk song”, ‘Black Is The Color…’ had been part of the American folk repertoire for a considerable period before Simone offered her interpretation of it. It appears in Jean Ritchie‘s 1965 anthology Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians, where it is listed as having been collected by Cecil Sharp in 1916 in North Carolina, Simone’s home state. The song is often sung from the perspective of a man speaking of a woman, though Ritchie’s version is addressed to a man and so is Simone’s.  Whatever the provenance of the song, it could not have failed to have other identifications given the racial politics of the time and a sense of  identity assertion could be identified here that would find subsequent articulation in the more explicit ‘Brown Baby’, ‘Four Women’ and ‘Young, Gifted and Black’.

Simone_AmazingIn addition to changing the pronouns of the song, Simone bases her version around a piano setting. While this is hardly surprising given that the piano was her instrument and that this performance was part of her first major New York concert, it does connect the performance to a longstanding classical music convention of incorporating folk songs into more “tasteful” or “artistic” styles and thus raises questions as to whether or not Simone would be considered a “folk singer” by the standards of the time, or indeed those of the present day. Still, the main feature of Simone’s rendition is her voice, its warm tone hovering over the fairly muted piano chords (her keyboard virtuosity only emerges for brief spells between verses). Simone would offer a very similar reading of the song on her 1966 album Wild Is the Wind, by which time the association of folk music with stringed instruments was firmly established, as was a folk “style”. Simone herself was not impervious to this folk style, as can be heard in her interpretation of Bob Dylan’s ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’ (on 1966’s Let It All Out), where she is accompanied solely by driving acoustic guitar, the pounding rhythm adding a sense of doomed fatality to the song’s tragic narrative.

‘Black Is the Color…’ has an interesting connection to classical and jazz music, having been used by both Luciano Berio and Patty Waters as the basis for longer works. The version of the song that Berio used in 1964 for his song cycle Folk Songs was one rewritten by John Jacob Niles, himself a fascinating character in the bringing together of classical and folk music. In late 1965, Patty Waters used the same version of the song that Simone had used as the basis for a 14-minute exploration of avant-garde vocal techniques on her album Sings. Much of Waters’s performance involves a violent interrogation of the word “black”, emphasizing the volatility of the term and encouraging a reading of the song in which black identity is foregrounded (Waters, a white singer, was operating in a musical milieu – free jazz – that would align itself strongly with the black power movement).

Simone_-_Black_GoldA “black pride” reading of the song would also seem to apply to the version which appears on Simone’s album Black Gold, a live album recorded in 1969.  The album opens with the announcer, Ed Williams, quoting from Langston Hughes. A version of ‘Black Is the Color…’ follows, not significantly different to that featured on earlier albums. Having “completed” that version, the band perform a second version, which takes its lead from the acoustic guitar and utilizes a different, but complementary melody, a different vocalist (guitarist Emile Latimer) and singing style, different words and a different gender perspective. The first line of the song is the same, but then some changes are made: “black is her body, so firm, so bold / black is her beauty, her soul of gold”. The subsequent narrative and instrumental style guide the song very closely to what would have been, at that time, a contemporary folk style, albeit with the blues/jazz tinge utilized by singers such as Fred Neil or Tim Buckley.

The evolution of this song in Simone’s performance programme serves as a reminder of the need to situate her in a wider context than she is often placed, one that saw the blurring of boundaries between artistic styles and high and low culture. This could be described as a postmodern moment, in which Simone participated as a postmodern artist. It was at least possible to consider what she did with ‘Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair’ alongside what Burl Ives, Kitty White, Patty Waters, John Jacob Niles and Luciano Berio did with it. This moment in Simone’s career combined a rush of success with exposure to an art world that could feed her intellectual and creative needs. Greenwich Village, at the time of her tenure there in the early 1960s, was a utopian site that contained the promise for artistic, political and personal revolutions in the decade to come.