An audience with the High Priestess of Soul.
Daryl Easlea 2010-12-13
It was said of Nina Simone that she performed "with heart at all times", and that is none more evident than on Nina Simone at Town Hall. Only her fourth album, it was recorded mostly live at the prestigious New York venue in September 1959, with three songs – The Other Woman, Cotton Eyed Joe and Wild Is the Wind – cut in a studio in the city a month later. It captures the 27-year-old at one of her early pinnacles.
The show was her New York concert debut. Simone later wrote how, after years playing clubs, that it was one of the first times that she’d played somewhere where people had arrived simply to listen to her. Recorded when she was only toying with popular music in order to fund her continued studies into classical piano, it shows her formal background, evident in her confident, on-stage mastery.
Serious-minded but never po-faced, Simone’s joy is evident by her squeals of delight at the end of several numbers; this is an artist clearly enjoying herself as much as her audience. Although only occasionally singing her own material, the authority and sincerity she brought to other’s work made their songs her own – George Gershwin’s Summertime, Dimitri Tiomkin’s Wild Is the Wind and Billie Holiday’s Fine and Mellow are here captured as if they couldn’t have been written for anyone else than Simone.
Supported by Jimmy Bond on bass and Al ‘Tootie’ Heath on drums, her grasp of the spectrum of popular music is astonishing. From traditional ballads such as Black Is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair to light and airy cabaret renditions of Exactly Like You to intense ruminations on being the wronged woman (You Can Have Him), Simone treats each piece with similar weight and respect.
The reviews for the show, as Simone later wrote, "were the best I ever had. I was a sensation. An overnight success, just like in the movies." Simone’s gravitas and strong self-belief made for an enthralling performance. Artists frequently bandy about the words "soul" and "passion" to compensate for their blatant lack of either. Few had both like Nina Simone, and …at Town Hall is one of the greatest examples of her unique style.