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Issue 1084

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Feature

Simone: Keeper Of The Flame

Simone
Simone Simone

Itâs challenging enough for any artist to pay tribute to a musical legend but when that legend happens to your mother, the bar is automatically set that much higher.

Simone (birth name Lisa), the daughter of âThe High Priestess Of Soul,â the great, grand Nina Simone knows. Most decidedly a vocalist with a distinctive sound and style very much her own - whose professional credits include the lead role in the Broadway musical âAidaâ â Simone knew that having her first CD be a tribute to Nina could be tough: that said, she was more than prepared and her Koch album, 'Simone On Simone' is the remarkable result, an album of twelve songs associated with Nina and one original, 'Child In Me,' with Simone accompanied by the Rob Stoneback Big Band. As an added bonus, the opening cut features mother and daughter in their first ever live duet, recorded in Ireland in 1999 on the song 'Music For Lovers,' with Nina proudly introducing her talented daughter before accompanying her on the piano.

First off, Simone â who has appeared in the UK and Europe with the famed âDaughters Of Soulâ tour alongside Lalah Hathaway (Donnyâs daughter) and Indira Khan (Chakaâs) â explains her reasoning for doing a tribute to her mother as her debut CD: âIt made sense to acknowledge the one who walked before me and pay homage to the legacy that began five years ago when I began working with my motherâs estate. Iâm bowing to my mother as I pay tribute to her, celebrate her and celebrate myself at the same time.â

It wasnât, she says, âdaunting â it was joyful one. My mom left me over fifty of her arrangements and when I was approached to do a big band project, it made sense to work with those arrangements. There were some songs in those arrangements that I really loved and fortunately we had big band right here in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania â near where I live. My management figured it would be best to make this tribute to my mother as my debut, that it would make the most sense to do. We ended up recording the whole album in two days!â

Rather than go for obvious selections like 'Donât Let Me Be Misunderstood' or 'I Put A Spell On You,' Simone chose some relatively obscure songs including four that are on Ninaâs 1966 'High Priestess Of Soul' album which she acknowledges âis perhaps my favourite Nina Simone LP.â Most notable are 'I Hold No Grudge,' 'Donât You Pay Them No Mind' (also recorded by Dee Dee Warwick) and the dark and mysterious 'Keeper Of The Flame,' which Simone says âwe rehearsed in the studio. 'Black Is The Color' is a song I never even had a chance to rehearse! Fortunately, I didnât have to do much because Iâve been living with these songs since I was a child. I didnât have a lot of time to work with them to make them my own the way I usually do but I was walking in faith and the stars were aligned!â

Simone says 'Go To Hell' (from Ninaâs 1967 album 'SilkânâSoul,' another of her daughterâs favorites) was âthe easiest to do because I sang it the way she did. I loved doing 'How Long Must I Wander' (from 'Here Comes The Sun') because it is so rangey and I tried an âAndrews Sistersâ approach with 'Love Me Or Leave Me' and it was like, wow! Basically, the final choice of what to do came after I went to my musical directorâs house, looked at the charts we had of my Momâs and looked at albums and all of a sudden, it was all doneâ¦â

Simone has already been out doing shows based on the album and the response to the CD (which debuted well on Billboardâs jazz charts) has, she says, âbeen very positive. Iâve done some dates with the Rob Stoneback Big Band but given the state of the economy, itâs something we canât do all the time although I do aspire to do that on a regular basis. I usually travel with seven pieces including three horns so we do songs from the album in a scaled-down form. Right now, weâre building and I have bookings and requests going into 2009. Iâm doing what Iâve been wanting to do for so long. Until now, itâs only been a dream but now itâs self-actualizing!â

Simone says that her experience in doing shows like âAidaâ and âRentâ prepared her for the road: âTheater will make you or break you! It definitely got me ready for thisâ¦and at least I donât have to do eight shows a week!â Of course, once people realize that Simone is Ninaâs daughter, there are expectations⦠âI think people whoâve never seen me before are always surprised at how tiny I am and I get the same comment, âWhere does that all that voice come from?â As far as comparisons go, Iâm not trying to be my mother. Whatever peopleâs expectations may be, theyâre usually rectified by the end of the show. I remember my mother used to try and dissuade me from having a career in music and she would say, âThey will expect you to play piano, expect you to sound like me and sing protest songs..â but there was no deterring me!â

Reminiscing on that unforgettable 1999 appearance with her mother, Simone says, âI remember every second. My daughter ReAnna was six weeks old and in limo ride to the gig, my Mom asked what key we were going to do the song. We hadnât rehearsed but she had perfect pitch! The thing is, she hadnât accompanied anyone since she was twenty! It was the first time I wasnât in the wings where Iâd spent so many years and there was so much joy and fulfillment being onstage with my mother...â

There are plans afoot for Simone to come to Europe (where Nina always maintained such a faithful following) and eventually, she says, âthere will be a âSimone On Simoneâ volume two.â For now, we have Vol. 1 and what a treat it is to hear these great songs delivered with love, respect and compassion, Simone truly being the keeper of the musical flame her mother lit so brightly.
Words DAVID NATHAN

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