A firebrand, a giant, a fearless performer, Nina Simone “sang her truth,” vocalist Dianne Reeves said.
Lizz Wright, left, and Lisa Simone Kelly will perform in the tribute to Nina Simone.
In the case of “Mississippi Goddam,” Simone’s response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls, it was an ugly truth. “It wasn’t delicate, believe me,” Reeves said. “She said the things that nobody wanted to hear; she sang them in a way that when you heard her anger, it scared people.”
It was also a beautiful, fragile truth, as in “I Loves You, Porgy,” the Gershwin standard that brought Simone’s voice into the lives of millions and became a Top 40 hit in 1958.
Since her death in 2003, Simone (born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, N.C.) seems the bringer of an imperishable truth, her voice showing up in television and movies (from “Sex and the City” to “The Watchmen”), her influence apparent in contemporary music from Mos Def to Mars Volta to Mary J. Blige.
Atlantans will hear four vocalists, including Reeves, bring the songs of Simone to life Friday during “Legends Celebration: Sing the Truth — A Tribute to Nina Simone,” a centerpiece presentation of this season’s National Black Arts Festival. This will be the first U.S. booking of a show that has toured Europe, including an appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland.
“I’m so proud that the first stateside show for this arrangement is in Georgia,” said Georgia native and former Atlantan Lizz Wright, who also performs in “Sing the Truth.” “I’m like, ‘Woo-hoo! It’s my people!’ ”
Led by Simone’s long-time musical director Al Shackman and accompanied by Simone’s band, the show also features Simone’s only child, Broadway vocalist Lisa Simone Kelly, who performs as Simone, and Atlantan Joi Gilliam, who takes the single stage name Joi.
After returning from stops in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain, the four vocalists spoke recently about Nina Simone’s impact on their lives and their music.
“The last time I saw Nina was in New York City,” said jazz great Reeves, a four-time Grammy winner, calling from her home in Denver. “It was in the mid-’80s, at the Blue Note, two shows a night, six nights a week. I saw every one of them.”
And rarely did Simone repeat herself. From sexual, social and political songs to children’s songs and French love songs, her range was enormous, Reeves said.
“The thing I love about her spirit is there was no part of her self that she didn’t access.”
Reeves praised her collaborators, including Shackman. “He’s really wonderful, because he’s a history book.”
Lisa Simone Kelly
After nine years in the Air Force, the artist known as Simone changed direction and pursued a career in music, making a name for herself in productions of Disney’s “Aida,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Rent.”
Different aspects of her mother’s work can be discovered in each of the vocalists in “Sing the Truth,” Simone said. “Each one of us is different in stature, in look, in our voices and approach, yet we embody a part of my mom that the audience can relate to.”
Joining the show has been like a family reunion for Simone, since Shackman was the equivalent of a godfather, who taught her to ride horses and milk cows at his farm.
It has also been a way to heal the loss. “You don’t get a chance to grieve personally, because your parent’s image is all over the place,” she said from her Miami home. “I go to a movie to get away from it all and, bam, I hear my mother on the soundtrack. … You have to deal with that.”
France, where Simone made her home after leaving the United States, appreciated her music. Paris enthusiastically received a recent tribute to Simone, organized by the Black Rock Coalition. “They loved it,” said Joi, who was part of the 18-woman show.
Joi first heard Simone’s music at a church summer camp, where she learned a modern dance routine choreographed to “Young, Gifted and Black.” Even though Joi’s own music — typified by the dark funk of “Sunshine and Rain” and “Lick” — stands apart from Simone’s jazz, she was affected by Simone’s power.
“I don’t think you can be an artist and come across some of Nina’s work and not be challenged to be more honest and more vulnerable and more passionate. I’m challenged every time I listen.”
Jazz singer Wright was a student at Georgia State University when she first encountered Simone’s music. “I never knew the voice could carry quite that much,” she said from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I heard people sing in church, I heard emotional singing before, but Nina could caress and she could tear down a wall.”
The secret to Simone’s ability to entrance her audiences was her full-force immersion in a lyric, Wright said. “Nina Simone was a master of intent. She could really commit herself to a character, to a story, to a cause, and there was no looking back; there was no reservation. She did not go for safe places.”
Wright’s rendition of “I Loves You, Porgy” will be the first song of the evening, and when she sings, she feels Simone’s presence. “She is a force, here and gone.”
“Legends Celebration: Sing the Truth — A Tribute to Nina Simone”