Title: Songs of Freedom
Artist: Ulysses Owens Jr.
Label: Resilience Music Alliance
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: March 15th 2019
Ulysses Owens is one of the most sought after jazz drummers around today, having worked alongside living legends such as Wynton Marsalis, Maceo Parker, Kurt Elling and Christian McBride, with whom he won his first Grammy Award. On top of his outstanding work as a side man, Owens is also making great strides as a band leader, with two studio albums, as well as positive influences in the jazz community through his work as an educator. Now, with the release of his third album, Songs of Freedom, Owens provides his commentary on the American political climate through the songbooks of three female icons of the turbulent 1960s: Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, and Joni Mitchell.Continue reading →
Formats: 2-CD set, LP (1 disc, 14 tracks), digital
Release date: February 23, 2018
In continuation of our focus on one of the industry’s greatest blues/jazz singers, Nina Simone’s The Colpix Singles showcases her pre-civil rights activist era releases. Simone’s professional career began in 1958 at a mere age of 25 with Bethlehem Records, but after the initial success of her hit “Porgy ( I Loves You Porgy), she moved on Columbia Picture’s recording company, Colpix Records. Simone’s forthcoming induction into the 2018 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has now spurred Warner Music into releasing a collection of the 7” singles Simone cut for Colpix. Remastered in mono, seven of the tracks are available in their original edits for the first time since the 1960s.
In this 27 track, two-disc offering, one can easily hear how her previous musical experiences fostered both her voice and performance maturity, as the songs recorded with Colpix reflect smoother, more controlled renditions of a diversified pool of well-known ballads. The first single from Disc 1, “Chilly Winds Don’t Blow,” was written by Hecky Krasnow, who was best known for Columbia’s novelty scores of “Frosty the Snowman” and Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.”
Live recordings made at The Town Hall in Midtown Manhattan in September, 1959 include “The Other Woman” and “It Might as Well be Spring,” which originally appeared on her Colpix debut album, The Amazing Nina Simone. The Archives of African American Music and Culture provided Warner Music with a rare copy of Simone’s “If Only For Tonight” and “Under The Lowest” (Colpix 156) for inclusion on this disc. Simone also showcases her blues prowess on the release “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” and the B-side “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair,” which would become one of her signature songs.
Disc 2 includes a hauntingly whimsical rendition of “Cotton Eyed Joe,” complete with Simone’s piano stylings running in the background. Soon after, she croons of lost respectability and newfound reliance on “You Can have Him.” From the opening strains, Simone’s powerful alto flows from the speakers, meandering its way into the ears and hearts of its listeners via its audial and lyrical flows.
Two more offerings, “Work Song” and “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl,” echo Simone’s early years in Atlantic City bars, pounding the ivories and belting out fast tempo blues. Her original tune, “Blackbird,” closes out the collection, showing her growing artistic maturity while revealing a glimpse of her future in social justice.
Simone would eventually compose and perform two of the most influential anthems of the Civil Rights Era, “Mississippi Goddam” and “Young, Gifted and Black.” That Simone participated in the Civil Rights Movement is an understatement. Nina Simone, from her formative years in Atlanta’s music scene to her eventual position as an outspoken social activist for Black rights, is one of the most influential activists and gifted artists of all time. Many thanks to The Colpix Singles compilers Nigel Reeve and Dean Rudland, and assistant Florence Joelle Halfon, for releasing this wonderfully remastered set. Simone’s listening audience will certainly reap the benefits.
Nina Simone was wooing audiences with her sultry vocals and captivating stage presence well before her first mainstream hit flooded the market. Her 1958 debut album, cut in one day at Belton Studios in midtown Manhattan, earned her the eventual moniker, “High Priestess of Soul”, which is all the more amazing considering Simone was a mere 25 years old. By 1959, she was a household name in the jazz world with her cover, “Porgy (I Loves You, Porgy)”, released by Bethlehem Records. As the song climbed the charts, Simone moved on to the larger and financially stronger Colpix Records, but not before cutting some of the smoothest tracks of her long career. After her departure, Bethlehem released those six additional tracks, and to commemorate the 60th anniversary of these recordings, BMG/Bethlehem has compiled these singles together as Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles.
This 14-track CD version follows the chronology of Simone’s Bethlehem recordings, starting with the first A-side “Porgy (I Loves You, Porgy)” and ending with the last A-side, My Baby Just Cares for Me”. The collection also contains an alternative take of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” as well as seven single-only tracks that previously have only been available on the original 45s. The LP version, pressed in standard black and limited edition blue vinyl, holds 12 tracks plus a bonus 7” replica of Simone’s first single backed with “Love Me or Leave Me.”
The Bethlehem Sessions displays a young Nina Simone confidently putting her distinctive stamp on the set of jazz numbers and Broadway tunes. Although this was her first album, Simone had contract stipulations asserting her right of musical direction, and she chose songs she was familiar with from her club years. In the collection, she is either performing solo on piano or backed by bassist Jimmy Bond and drummer Al “Tootie” Heath, both of whom went on to lengthy careers. Bonuses nestled in the liner notes are new interviews with Heath and an Ashley Kahn narrative regarding the recording of “Little Girl Blue”.
2018 not only marks the 60th anniversary of the Bethlehem Sessions, but it will also see Simone’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, slated for April 14. Simone, who would have turned 85 on February 21st, has never left the public’s eye since her passing in 2003. She recorded numerous albums on diverse labels from 1959-1974, and in the 30 years following her recording period she performed live to multiple global audiences. Just as Simone traveled the world, she also traveled down many musical roads. Mood Indigo captures Nina Simone at an incandescent moment—when her sound held both a complexity of style and a purity of youth that is now preserved for ages to come.
To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story is a four disc (3 CDs + DVD)box set that chronologically covers the 36 year recording career of pianist/singer Nina Simone. Released by Legacy Recordings, the set is unique in providing a career-long profile of Simone’s music and life. A total of 51 songs comprise the compact discs. The DVD is a 23 minute audio/visual montage of 10 song and interview segments. Expansive and well researched liner notes are included with a brief overview on the artist by Ed Ward and background on the compilation provided by the set’s producer, Richard Seidel. Track by track notes are provided by David Nathan. Interspersed between the liner notes are black & white photographs of Simone from youth to middle age. Together, the CDs, video and liner notes provide valuable contextualization and position Simone as an important musical and political figure who was shaped by and played a role in shaping the social movements of her day.
The compact disc selections include 8 previously unreleased tracks and 43 reissues of songs spanning ten record labels, from Simone’s recording debut on Bethlehem in 1957 to her final major label recording on Elektra in 1993. An objective of the set (as stated by Seidel) is to highlight Simone’s distinctive conflation of eclectic musical genres or facets thereof inclusive of classical music, jazz, R&B, Broadway musicals, blues, folk songs, gospel and spirituals, rock, French songs, civil rights protest repertoire, and reggae. From a cultural research perspective, Simone’s eclectic mixture of music genres successfully counters music industry marketing strategies, at play since the 1920s, which tended to categorize Black music within rigidly constructed boundaries (e.g., “R&B” or “popular”) (see Maultsby 2006; Mahon 2004:142-175).
At the outset of her recording career, Simone was a prodigious musical talent foundationally grounded in classical music. Having experienced the harsh realities of racial discrimination and an early failed marriage, she brought a breadth of musical and personal maturity to her first recording date at the age of 24. Co-musical accompaniment on the selections ranges from jazz drums and bass instrumentation to arrangements for full orchestras. Simone’s singing voice-a later compliment to her fluid pianistic skills-is poignant, at times harsh, and almost always captivating.
The first compact disc in the set covers Simone’s career from 1957 to 1968. Twenty songs range in thematic and generic categories from Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” to a French love ballad by Jacques Brel, “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” to “Four Women,” a Simone original that addresses the discriminatory social effects between four Black women of different skin color. The second compact disc includes seventeen recordings from 1968 to 1969. The opening selection is a Simone composition, “Mississippi Goddam,” written for the highly publicized 1963 murder of four black girls in Alabama. The song was recorded in a live performance within days following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Simone’s reference to the tragedy and her rebuke to her audience to “sing along with me… for God’s sake … the time is late” is sadly stirring. In stark contrast, the following song by Barry Gibb (of The Bee Gees), “In the Morning,” is an optimistic outlook on the potentialities of carefree life. The CD closes with Leonard Cohen’s poem set to music, “Suzanne.” The third compact disc spans recordings from 1969 to 1993. Simone’s deeply moving delivery of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” is enhanced by background data on her life, including the recent separation from her second husband, Andrew Stroud. For the final 33 years of Simone’s life, from the early 1970s to her death in 2003, she lived outside of the United States, variously in the Caribbean, Africa and Europe. The final two selections of the box set reflect the world weary life that had become Simone’s-an orchestrated reggae rendition of Randy Newman’s “Baltimore” and Rod McKuen’s “A Single Woman.”
The DVD, produced by Peter Aristotle Rodis, situates an already superb CD box set over the top. One might think of Simone as an explosively, multi-generic, “black aesthetic” artist who brought much more to her performance than mere song. She infuses melody, harmony and rhythm with growls and screams from pain and joy. She rises from her pianistic posture to dance about the stage in an ecstatic trance. She interacts emphatically with the audience and the musicians on stage. In her own words from a late 1960s interview, “I’ve always thought that I was shaking people up, but now I wanna go at it more and I want to go at it deliberately. I want to go at it coldly. I want to shake people up so bad that when I leave a night club … I just want them to go to pieces. Where we’re all groovin.’ And that’s my ideal of a good performance, when I have pleased me and pleased them and everybody’s feeling alright, we’re all groovin’ now.”
Here’s Legacy’s promo video for To Be Free, featuring Simone singing the title track:
Whether you’re a novice to Nina Simone’s music or a long time fan, To Be Free, listed for sale at $49.99, is well worth the price.
Editor’s note: To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story was recently nominated for a Grammy for Best Historical Album.
Maultsby, Portia. 2005. “Marginalizing and Mainstreaming Black Popular Music: An Interpretation of Marketing Labels.” Unpublished paper presented at the 2005 Society for Ethnomusicology conference. Atlanta, Georgia.
Mahon, Maureen. 2004. Right to Rock. Durham and London: Duke University Press.