Sing the truth… A tribute to Nina Simone

Nina Simone was remembered this year at the JVC Jazz Festival by chosen guests: Tracy performed “Wild Is the Wind” solo and “Four Women.”at the end of the tribute with Simone the younger, Odetta and Lizz Wright.

  • WHAT: JVC Jazz Festival New York: Sing The Truth … A Night/Tribute For Nina Simone
  • WHO : Oscar Brown Jr, Tracy Chapman, Floetry, Toni Morrison, Odetta, Simone, James “Blood” Ulmer with Vernon Reid, Lizz Wright With All Schackman (Music Director) Leopold Fleming, Bobby Hamilton, Tony Jones, Paul Robinson, & Chris White
  • WHERE: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
  • WHEN: 8 pm, June 21, 2004
  • HOW MUCH: $75 . $60 . $45 . $30.
  • PRESENTED BY: George Wein and Festival Productions, Inc., in partnership with Carnegie Hall.


  • A SIMONE MEMORIAL MADE OF MUSIC – By Gene Symour,, June 24, 2004

All-star memorial concerts have become – sadly, inevitably – more solidified fixtures of JVC jazz festivals in recent years. Often, such affairs assume the messy, emotionally overwrought atmosphere of a grand wake in which performers get so swept up in their own emotions that the artistic legacy of the concert’s honoree is reduced to an afterthought. Monday night’s tribute concert to Nina Simone at Carnegie Hall promised much spillage and drift because the sui generis singer-songwriter-activist, who died last year at age 70, inspired such powerful, deeply embedded, visceral responses in her audiences. Keynoting the show, novelist and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison distilled the essence of Simone’s abiding and galvanizing inspiration to generations of listeners in four words: “She saved our lives.”

There was no lack of passion and poignancy in the concert that followed. But “Sing the Truth … A Tribute to Nina Simone” proved to be one of the best all-star tributes staged at a JVC festival because it allowed its audience full-contact access to its emotions while displaying the expansive reach of the late singer’s body of work. The simple production values helped. A septet led by Simone’s longtime musical collaborator Al Schackman proved flexible enough to support an eclectic guest list.

It was wonderful to see singer-composer Oscar Brown Jr. return to a JVC festival stage, eyes dancing with light and mischief. He performed two of his pieces associated with Simone, “Forbidden Fruit” and, more dramatically, “Rags and Old Iron.” He and Odetta, her frail appearance belying the ongoing potency of her voice, pooled their talents for a spirited rendition of “Work Song.”

Most of the evening was yielded to younger-generation performers such as Lizz Wright, who gave stately, decorous renderings of “I Loves You Porgy” and “Lilac Wine,” and Tracy Chapman, who came closest to Simone’s fire- breathing, declamatory spirit with her turns on “Wild is the Wind” and “Be My Husband.”

And, of course, there was the daughter who bills herself simply as Simone, who understandably seemed the most emotionally vulnerable of the performers, especially after finishing a touching rendition of “Everything Must Change.” Guitarists James Blood Ulmer and Vernon Reid delighted the crowd by applying electro-boogie grit to Simone’s iconic, uptown- sleek arrangement of “My Baby Cares for Me.”

In an evening of dramatic peaks, the highest was delivered by the hip-hop duo Floetry, as Marsha Ambrosius and Natalie Stewart combined soaring vocals with an underpinning of rap on “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” and, of course, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”

That could have sent everyone home happy, but the festivities reached an appropriately breathtaking conclusion as Simone the younger, Chapman, Odetta and Wright came together on the honoree’s galvanic “Four Women.”

  • A TRIBUTE TO NINA SIMONE – By Frank Scheck,, June 23, 2004

This salute to the late, great Nina Simone, featuring a sterling group of both contemporaries and acolytes, is the sort of show that the JVC Jazz Festival does best. Featuring material heavily drawn from the singer’s mid-1960s recordings, “Sing the Truth … A Tribute to Nina Simone” well served its subject, who herself headlined the same stage as part of the festival a mere three years ago.

Beginning with a moving introduction by author Toni Morrison, who appropriately read an excerpt from her acclaimed novel “Jazz,” the evening, produced by Danny Kapilian, well demonstrated the stylistic range and diversity that made Simone so special. The music was provided by former members of Simone’s own band, including her longtime associate and musical director, guitarist Al Schackman.

Oscar Brown Jr., who wrote two of her signature tunes, “Forbidden Fruit” and “Rags and Old Iron,” provided his own take on those numbers. On the former, a novelty number about the snake in the Garden of Eden, he acted out the central character with a loose-hipped insouciance that generated gales of laughter. Simone’s statuesque daughter, who now bills herself simply as “Simone,” movingly recalled her mother’s physicality and vocal style in a soaring rendition of “I Hold No Grudge.” Although clearly emotional, she managed to joke about her mother: “Had she known all this hoopla was gonna happen, she’d have faked something a long time ago.”

The venerable Odetta, who worked the same Greenwich Village coffeehouse circuit as the show’s subject some four decades ago, was the evening’s most energetic performer. Performing such numbers as a percussive “See Line Woman,” the gospel-flavored “Sinnerman” and “Work Song” in a duet with Brown, she displayed a fierce energy that belied her years.

The younger generation was represented by such figures as James “Blood” Ulmer and Vernon Reid, who provided idiosyncratic vocals and blues-inflected guitar playing on standards like “My Baby Just Cares for Me”; rising star Lizz Wright, infusing “Lilac Wine” with her precise phrasing and smoky tone; Tracy Chapman, accompanying her gorgeous voice only with percussive tapping on her guitar in her rendition of “Be My Husband”; and the singing duo Floetry, whose intricate harmonies enlivened such songs as “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”

In the stirring finale, Wright, Simone, Chapman and Odetta movingly embodied the four characters in Simone’s complex signature tune, “Four Women.”

  • SING THE TRUTH: A TRIBUTE TO NINA SIMONE – By David Sprague,, Tue Jun 22, 4:15 PM ET

– Carnegie Hall, New York; 2,804 capacity; $75 top
– Presented by Festival Prods. Reviewed June 21, 2004.
– Performers: Lizz Wright, Simone, Tracy Chapman, Odetta, Floetry, Oscar Brown, Jr., James “Blood” Ulmer, Vernon Reid, Al Schackman, Bob Dorough. Produced by Danny Kapilian.

The pricklier an artist, the more challenging it is to mount a successful tribute, and few performers left behind a legacy more thorny — artistically and politically — than Nina Simone (news). To the credit of the performers involved, “Sing the Truth” recalled the singer/activist in all her unvarnished glory, in both remembrances and song.

The program’s first set, anchored by Simone’s longtime musical director Al Schackman, was decidedly more steeped in emotion, particularly when the singer’s daughter (who performs under the single name Simone) took on topically heated songs like “Everything Must Change.”

Lizz Wright effectively channeled Nina Simone’s sensuality on a pair of offerings, notably “Lilac Wine,” while Odetta — a contemporary of the late singer — took a rootsier route to her musical core. Oscar Brown Jr. provided a fine foil for Odetta on “Work Song,” which closed the first half of the show.

Set two was largely given over to younger performers, but producer Danny Kapilian wisely chose to spotlight those with an affinity for Simone’s work, rather than simply cherrypick marquee names. James “Blood” Ulmer and Vernon Reid, in a rare duet, explored Simone’s forays into the blues idiom, pairing with particular poignancy on “My Baby Just Cares For Me.”

The evening wasn’t without its fallow points: Tracy Chapman, the sole performer to take the stage sans band, was a bit overmatched by the primeval “Be My Husband,” while Bob Dorough failed to capture the requisite veranda breeze of “Memphis in June.”

Show closer Floetry, however, flawlessly imbued a three-song perf with the fire that inhabited Simone’s most personal material. The duo riffed through “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” the singer’s ardent ode to African-American manhood, with admirable lack of restraint, then dovetailed into a steely, dignified take on “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”


  • A YOUNGER GENERATION’S HOMAGE TO A SOULFUL DIVA – By Stephen Holden, New York Times, June 24, 2004

“She saved our lives,” the author Toni Morrison declared, assessing the lacerating honesty and passion of Nina Simone, who died last year at 71. Ms. Morrison, who read an excerpt from her novel “Jazz,” was the first of many astutely chosen guests assembled at Carnegie Hall on Monday evening to pay tribute to the singer, pianist and sometime songwriter, once labeled the High Priestess of Soul. Ms. Morrison recalled Simone’s ability to “hypnotize” an audience with her naked emotional intensity and raw, confrontational voice.

The concert, one of the main events of the JVC Jazz Festival, was a sad reminder that once upon a time before pop music became a televised lap dance, music and social history were intimately connected in a tradition that stood near the forefront of American culture.

Both the Chicago-based folk-blues storyteller Oscar Brown Jr. and the folk-blues legend Odetta, who appeared on Monday, are going strong in their 70’s, although who would know? Mr. Brown acted out “Rags and Old Iron,” a swatch of comic urban folklore he wrote with Norman Curtis. Odetta, her voice as loamy and timeless as ever, conjured painful history in Mr. Brown and Nat Adderley’s “Work Song.”
Although the tradition of bearing the mythology of a culture has been sidelined in the age of MTV, the inclusion of younger performers like Tracy Chapman, Lizz Wright and the popular British duo Floetry (Marsha Ambrosius and Natalie Stewart), showed that it still flickers.

Simone was the ultimate pop diva, notoriously temperamental, musically beyond category and at one time the definitive interpreter of Bob Dylan. Her expressions of bitterness, anger and embattled pride were matched by a supreme, classically trained musicality few could touch. I will never forget her spellbinding voice-and-piano rendition of “Alone Again, Naturally,” into which she interpolated the traumatic events of her life in a devastating 20-minute autobiography.

Each younger guest captured a facet of Simone’s sensibility. Ms. Chapman performed a quiet, trembling “Wild Is the Wind” to her own guitar in waltz time that evoked the vulnerable young romantic. Ms. Wright’s fiercely concentrated “I Loves You Porgy” and “Lilac Wine” showed the expressive force of a great pop-jazz voice deployed without the camouflage of melisma.

Performing “To Be Young Gifted and Black” Floetry showed how the vocabulary of neo-soul adapted for the age of hip-hop could convey a persuasive message of black pride to a younger generation. The concert ended with a strong rendition of “Four Women,” one of Simone’s most famous songs, performed by Ms. Chapman, Ms. Wright, Odetta, and the diva’s daughter, known simply as Simone. Behind all of Nina Simone’s pain lay a reservoir of tenderness. It remained for her longtime musical colleague, Al Shackman, who began working with her in 1957, to sum up her essence on Monday. Beneath her layers of sophistication, he said, the singer, who was born in North Carolina, was at heart a “little Southern country girl.”

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