May 27, 2024

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CD review: Nina Simone – You’ve Got To Learn – 2023: Video, CD cover

2023 U.S. CD release. Across a six-song set, including the title song and “Mississippi Goddam,” Simone leaves the listener as entranced as the festival audience, whose fervent applause was rewarded with a show-stopping encore. The Newport Jazz Festival was a special place for Simone, and this previously unknown recording is a tremendous showcase of her commanding power onstage.

Great vocalist Nina Simone would have turned 90 years old. The jazz legend, who passed away in 2003, released records for decades.

As part of the year-long celebration of Simone, Verve Records is releasing a newly unearthed six-song set Simone performed at the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1966.

The resulting album, You’ve Got To Learn, is both lush and haunting. Millennial listeners will be tempted to compare Simone’s sultry vocals to Fiona Apple, but of course, the reality is that Apple and so many other modern singers were influenced by Simone.

On the opening title track, Simone offers up a world-weary pep talk, singing, “You’ve got to learn to show a happy face/ Although you’re full of misery/ You mustn’t show a trace of sadness/ Never look for sympathy.”

The sparse musical arrangement of piano, guitar, drums and bass functions like a low flame on the stove, heating Simone’s vocals into warm syrup. As the song builds to a musical crescendo, she delivers the final verse.

“You’ve got to learn to be much stronger/ At times your head must rule your heart/ You’ve got to learn from hard experience/ And listen to advice/ And sometimes pay the price/ And learn to live with a broken heart,” she sings.

Her voice is heavy with the pain and hope of history.

“Now we’re going to do a gutbucket blues,” she tells her audience while introducing “Blues For Mama.” “It is so because of its background. There’s an old porch, and there’s an old man, and there’s a beat-up guitar and a broken bottle. There are flies all around, there is molasses all around, and he is composing his tune on a hot afternoon. … It will appeal to a certain type of women who has had this kind of experience.”

The song’s driving piano is both urgent and graceful. Simone’s voice will raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

The songs are so good; it’s kind of shocking to hear the audience applaud in places, or cheer for Simone’s cover of George Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy.” It’s hard to imagine any audience was lucky enough to witness this live.

By the end of the set, her voice is so full and powerful, the band is barely playing. Only occasional piano chords accompany Nina Simone on the last song, “Music for Lovers,” as she sings, “There’s music for lovers/ In the hush-a-bye dreams/ Of you child/ When the whole world discovers/ That love is the only thing worthwhile/ There’ll be music for everyone/ And the whole world will smile.”

While the album’s live sound is a little rougher than a studio recording, the moments when Nina Simone pushes her vocal mic to the edge of distortion have a sublime beauty all their own.

Nina Simone has been seemingly as visible as an active artist in recent years with reissues and unearthed recordings. Now Verve Records commemorates her 90th birthday with the newly discovered release of her performance at the 1966 Newport Jazz Festival, entitled You’ve Got to Learn. You’ve likely seen her performance in the Academy Award-winning documentary, Summer of Soul by Questlove, a performance that most describe as aggressive protest music. Another is her “Martin Luther King Suite” recorded in Atlanta in April of ’68, the night after King’s murder, where she was unequivocally and justifiably enraged. This Newport performance is every bit as passionate but without the aggressive, angry component. It represents an evolving Simone.

She had, of course, already written “Mississippi Goddam” in response to the 1963 Alabama church bombing that killed four little girls. Yet, her rendition of this same song herein, like the others in the set, comes across as a love song, in this case, a swinger that almost camouflages the hurt. Simone was carrying the banner of King’s overriding message that love will conquer all. The set list had been building toward this song as the climax with Simone at the piano with her backing trio (Rudy Stevenson – guitar, Lisle Atkinson – bass, and Bobby Hamilton – drums). Her vocal range, phrasing, and ability to connect with the audience are striking from the provocative examination of love in the title track on through to this planned finale.

Simone is seductive and ever so dramatically charming on her first hit single from eight years prior, “I Loves You Porgy” and then gets earthy and gritty on the music she wrote for Abbey Lincoln’s “Blues for Mama” that features guitarist Stevenson exhibiting his blues chops. She follows, accompanied only by her drummer with another of her hits, “Be My Husband,” before slyly delving into “Mississippi Goddam,” subverting the politics of the song in favor of upbeat swinging. This version is so different than any other that she’s recorded that it alone makes this recording a worthy listen. But there’s more. The audience demanded an encore and Simone returns alone, creating a hush after telling a heckling member to “shut up.” She delivers a transfixing “Music for Lovers,” that picks up a joyous tempo after her sparkling piano solo, her voice so stunning in both its range and emotive nuances. It’s as jaw-dropping a song performance as any this writer has ever heard from her.

So, Nina at Newport in ’66 is not, as one may think at first blush, just another live performance of her hit songs. It’s a singular performance, albeit as passionate as any, captured at a tamer period in Simone’s eventual increasingly sharp political stance.

Nina Simone You've Got to Learn, Nina Simone

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