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Arts Desk
Every week on the air there's a special focus on one particular jazz album. Check them all out here!

Jazz Album of the Week: 'Nuff Said!, Nina Simone’s Emotionally Layered Requiem for MLK

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January 18, 2021. Many today believe America’s cultural divide has reached an inflection point, a time where society has no choice but to seriously reckon with issues of race, class, civil rights, opportunity, and dignity in a way it hasn’t since Nina Simone first sang protest songs.

In recent years, perhaps as a byproduct of that widening cultural divide, there’s been a resurgence of both popular and critical interest in Simone, the High Priestess of Soul and a civil rights icon. That’s why I can’t ignore the call for a vintage Album of the Week that MLK Day 2021 has issued. For so many reasons, this year, it’s got to be Nina Simone’s ’Nuff Said!

On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Three days later, Nina Simone performed at Westbury Music Fair on Long Island. That performance was recorded live and released later that year by RCA/Victor as 'Nuff Said!

Three years prior, after the famous Selma to Montgomery civil rights march in 1965, Simone played for some 10,000 people in Montgomery. She met Dr. King for the first time there, and though they didn’t always agree philosophically, they respected one another and became friends.

By that point in Simone’s life, her priorities had changed. She became part of a circle of activist black intellectuals that included Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, Stokely Carmichael and James Baldwin. She began writing and performing what would become her most iconic protest anthems; Hughes wrote one for her, “Backlash Blues,” and Hansberry’s work inspired another, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”

Though her political awakening jeopardized her commercial success and mainstream marketability, she’d found meaning after years spent in what she called the “nothing world” of pop. Music became the individually tailored means by which she could most effectively lodge protest.

So that’s the kind of head space Simone was in in early 1968. Then King’s assassinated, and three days later, Simone’s on stage. Simone was so frequently awe-inspiring but also known to be irascible, abrasive, and even volatile during live performances—her alcoholism and mental health struggles (now believed to have been bipolar disorder) have all been documented. But she was also frequently, often justifiably, just pissed off. What’s interesting on 'Nuff Said!, though, is that while we get a Simone who is clearly mournful, that sadness is projected less as righteous fury and more as shocked weariness and vulnerability.

That’s not to say fury and rage are absent entirely; they’re just subdued, the product of existential exhaustion and disappointment. ’Nuff Said’s version of “The Backlash Blues,” the tune written for Simone by Langston Hughes, is often more biting and confrontational than it is here. But, under the circumstances, it’s a dagger to the core of the listener; Simone’s like a parent telling a teenage child she’s not angry, but disappointed. 

The “Mississippi Goddam” that’s included on later CD re-issues even includes a preamble by Simone to this effect. “A couple of years ago, four little girls were killed in Alabama,” she tells the crowd, referring to the racially motivated bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Montgomery of nearly five years prior. “And at that time we got the inspiration to do this song. But Dr. King’s murder has left me so numb, I don’t know where I’m at, really.”

If this is what Simone was capable of when disoriented, it gives you an idea of what she was like when firing on all cylinders. Her state, as on “Backlash” does not change the paradigmatic thrust of the tune, but it does reframe it. She dispenses with the dark humor you hear on other versions—no “this is a show tune but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” There was a time and place for rage wrapped in cuteness, but the hour for tactics has passed. Later on the cut, she even implores the crowd to join her: “Don’t sit back there; the time is too late now! Good God! The King is dead; the King of Love is dead. I ain’t ’bout to be nonviolent, honey!”

And suddenly, Simone is roused from her reverie and is on the offensive again, this time shooting straight from her gut. Listen to how she sings the line “me and my people just about due,” departing from the melody as written and singing the line instead with a cascading improvisational riff that underscores the lyric’s message. It’s one of several magical moments on this version, a take on “Mississippi” rivaled only by the historic and flooring Carnegie Hall rendition that, for audience response alone, is worth a listen.

But this night was all about Dr. King, and she announces as much at the outset. In King, Simone saw someone with whom she didn’t always agree but profoundly admired. “And I loved him,” she tells the audience during “Mississippi.” “Because he believed it; he lived by it.”

Simone eulogizes King in bits and pieces throughout, but the unforgettable elegy is one that wasn’t written by Simone but by her bassist, Gene Taylor, just days earlier, specifically for this event. While introducing “Why? (The King of Love is Dead),” Nina understandably tries to temper expectations somewhat, telling the audience she and the band had just the day before to learn the tune, “So we’ll see.”

What we see—and hear—is a eulogy that’s epic in scope, where Simone plays nearly every role the setting demands. At times, it’s a preacher’s sermon; at other times, it’s an anguished requiem, and, still elsewhere, it wearily questions God. It’s also Nina Simone on the mic here, so that “Mississippi Goddam” persona isn’t entirely absent either. “They’re shooting us down one by one,” she tells the audience in one of her trademark spoken interludes. “Don’t forget that, because they are…killing us one by one.” For one tune to comprise, over the course of 13 minutes, nearly every stage of grief, is extraordinary, and lends credence to the idea of Simone as a profoundly complex emotional character.

The rest of the album is terrific for most of the reasons already stated. If you’re familiar with Simone, they’re songs you know. Fletcher Henderson’s “Gin House Blues” is given a slightly more upbeat treatment than it’s given on Forbidden Fruit (1961), and I won’t get too deeply into “Ain’t Got No—I Got Life” here because it was added post-hoc, in the studio. But it suffices to say that the extent to which that facially benign tune, originally from Hair, would become a protest anthem is a testament to Simone’s peerless ability to shape music and lyrics to her mood and her will. Simone’s Bee Gees covers, of which there are two here— “In the Morning” (also added to the album after the fact) and “Please Read Me”— are always enjoyable, even if they do feel a little like filler here.

The “Sunday in Savannah,” however, is the genuine article, and feels just as closely tailored to this day as “Why?” The contrast between what the song evokes in the abstract and how it works in the context of King’s then-recent death is heartbreakingly powerful. Of course, Simone’s highest genius was her unmatched ability to touch depths of human emotion in ways that could rouse the most emotionally dormant person.

“We really didn’t expect anybody tonight, and you know why,” she tells the audience at the start of “Sunday.” “Everybody knows everything. Everything is everything.”

“We hope that we can provide some kind of [pause] something [pause] for you this evening,” she continues, “on this particular evening, this Sunday evening at this particular time in 1968.”

At this particular time in 2021, as we reflect on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and work, the need for that “some kind of something” Ms. Simone is talking about feels about as great as ever.