“sinnerman” – nina simone (1965)

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For the last few months, I’ve been going to a Meetup group focused on discussing classic albums.  There, the participants meet for an hour to discuss whatever album was selected that week; their thoughts on the music, artist, personal anecdotes, or whatever else they feel they want to contribute.  Think of it as like a book club but for music.

The structure for the group is simple.  We meet for an hour every other week or so at a coffee shop where we have a conference room reserved.  Usually, about half a dozen people show up.  Selections for the album discussion from a compendium entitled 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, or something to that effect.  In this book, 1001 different albums noted for their critical or cultural value are featured chronologically from 1956 through 2009.  Each album, depending on the inherent value of the album, has a write-up about the significance as well as a track break down with recommending signature songs and pertinent release information.  Most of the records have a half page write-up, while the more popular albums have a full page and perhaps even a picture of the artist.

With 1001 different albums to choose from, there is the potential that choosing a record can be an arduous process.  However, it is not.  In preparation, it was agreed that the first album would be from the 1950s which is the first decade listed in book.  An album would be picked, people would go listen to it during their own free time, and then come to the meeting to discuss.  After discussing the selected 1950s album, the meeting would adjourn by picking an album from the next decade.  Repeat the process again and the end of the meeting to discuss the 1960s album would result in an album from the 1970s being picked.  Then the 1980s, the 1990s, and finally the 2000s before circling back around to the 1950s.  Not only does this process make the meetings a little more structured and the selection process easier, it also encourages diverse listening and getting out of one’s own comfort zone.  Without that structure, the selections would be homogenized with little opportunities to listen to something new; previous selections have included afro-Cuban jazz as an example.  The album selection for the next meeting is made by having everyone write their choice from that decade onto a sheet of paper, and then an album is randomly pulled from a hat.

A few weeks ago, the pick during the meeting designated for an album from the 1960s was Nina Simone’s 1966 classic Wild Is the Wind.  The album is significant and features “Four Women,” one of Simone’s most signature tracks that focuses on racial issues and stereotypes; issues Simone is known for in her career.  The album is great and worthy of listening to, but it is flawed.  Wild Is the Wind feels like a compilation as opposed to a cohesive listening experience.  That was pretty much the consensus during that discussion.

Thumbing through our reference book, I found Wild Is the Wind was the only Simone album featured in the book.  Many artists have multiple albums featured, but Simone didn’t.  And that’s a shame because Wild Is the Wind, while great, is not Simone’s best work.

Unjustifiably missing from the book is Simone’s 1965 album Pastel BluesPastel Blues is an innovative album that references a variety of different musical styles and arrangements.  Simone sings blues, jazz, and soul on this record with such intensity and passion that listening almost becomes a spiritual experience.  The record features complex arrangements including a rendition of “Strange Fruit” that almost overshadows Billie Holiday’s version.  However, the final track of the album is what truly defines Pastel Blues as a complex work of art and serves as being one of Simone’s finest recordings.

“Sinnerman,” closing out the record, is an African American spiritual song that chronicles the struggle of a sinner seeking refuge from Judgment Day.  The sinner runs to the rock to hide, but is turned away.  The sinner runs to the Lord for help, but the Lord sends him to the Devil.  The Devil is there waiting for the sinner takes him in.  Simone’s arrangement of the classic folk song is a 10 minute tour de force of jazz, soul, and gospel rhythms.  An urgent sounding piano opens of the track followed by some percussion shortly afterwards.  Simone’s signature deep voice comes in to the tell story.  As we follow the sinner on his journey, Simone’s voice becomes louder and more intense until it erupts in chanting “power” and “bring down” along with band behind her shouting in unison.  After a few minutes in, the backing band dies down and the track segues into syncopated clapping with the piano underneath driving the rhythm.  During the course of the song, the progression changes and features moments of raw fire vocalization and a culmination of music that I only describe as a jazz explosion.  It is a powerful and briskly paced track that is complex and offers a challenging listening experience.

I first heard this song in college, but it has always stuck with me.  In the discussion group, Nina Simone was a new discovery for some of the listeners.  I’m enjoying the group and have already learned so much from exciting records I had never heard before.  There is a lot of great stuff out there if you take the time to look.  I am eager to find the next big thing that will make an impact on me.  Always growing.  Always learning.  Always listening.

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