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Tribute to Nina Simone

2009 August 1
Lizz Wright, Simone, Joi Gilliam, Dianne Reeves

Lizz Wright, Simone, Joi Gilliam, Dianne Reeves

In last night’s National Black Arts Festival’s tribute to Nina Simone, four singers took the stage separately to remember one of the most recognized voices of jazz and soul.

Because Nina Simone’s voice was so unique (you know that voice within the first bar, if not the first two notes), it seemed to be with the highest regard to her that none of the singers—including her daughter—tried to emulate her sound.

Lizz Wright, Lisa “Simone” Kelley, Joi Gilliam, and Dianne Reeves took turns taking the stage and singing the songs Simone recorded over her nearly 50-year career. While each singer’s style was clearly her own, they all seemed to be influenced by the same styles we heard from Nina Simone: gospel, pop, soul, R&B, and jazz.

Chanteuse Joi Gilliam brought back memories of Marlene Dietrich in “The Blue Angel” as she strutted and sang a song in French. (Simone moved to France in the ‘90s.) Gilliam resides in Atlanta and has sung with Outkast, George Clinton, Curtis Mayfield, Joss Stone and many others. She can be heard singing around town under the moniker “The Dirty Debutante.”

Dianne Reeves twisted and turned music upside down rearranging standards like “I Put a Spell On You,” so much that the intro was unrecognizable. Talk about putting a stamp on your music and branding yourself. She was phenomenal! Between her and the band, I heard twinges of Archie Shepp’s “Sea of Faces,” Gladys Knight, Abbey Lincoln, sounds from the sea, and spirits from Africa.

Lizz Wright and Simone, also were outstanding. Wright, a native of Hahira, Ga., who studied singing at Georgia State University, opened the show. Now renowned in the jazz world, her albums have reached No. 1 and No. 2 on the Billboard Top Contemporary Jazz Charts.

Nina Simone’s daughter, who professionally goes by one name, Simone, has sung in the national touring company of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and on Broadway in “Rent” and “Aida.” She has released two solo albums: “Simone Superstar,” and “Simone on Simone.”

The show’s music director, guitarist and vibraphonist Al Shackman, has played with the Nina Simone band for 50 years, including the time since her death in 2003. Percussionist Leopoldo Fleming has played with the band since 1971, and drummer Paul Robinson has been with them since 1984. Other band members included Chris White on electric upright bass and Geri Allen on piano.

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