By Derek Volkmann
A sunny day in Music City welcomed a brief respite from the spring rains that had been saturating Nashville during the several weeks prior. As such, the community turned out in large numbers this past Sunday, March 10 to attend the Frist Art Museum’s presentation in partnership with the Nashville Jazz Workshop on the life and music of renowned American musician and activist Nina Simone.
This presentation led by celebrated Nashville artist Dara Tucker was another installment of the Nashville Jazz Workshop’s “Jazz on the Move” series, which features a local professional artist providing an educational presentation on a celebrated jazz figure in addition to performing various selections of their works. Tucker, originally from Tulsa and a twelve-year veteran of the Nashville music scene, provided the audience with insight to Simone’s journey in American popular music that ensconced her as a notable figure in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and “reflector of the times” throughout the rest of her colorful career.
The presentation was held in a large auditorium during midafternoon that was packed with more than four hundred audience members. Towards the end of the welcoming remarks given by Kathy Demonbreun and Eric Dilts, the band filed onto the stage. The band was comprised of pianist Matt Endahl, bassist Greg Bryant, guitarist J.P. Ruggeri, and drummer Nioshi Jackson. Tucker appeared on the stage after the opening remarks were concluded, wearing an elegant black dress and a patterned red head scarf accented by a gold jewelry evoking the African heritage championed for many years by Simone herself throughout her career.
The band wasted no time in getting started. The opening tune, “Feeling Good” featured Tucker on solo vocals, calling into mind a griot-like call to attention for the musical journey ahead. After the first few opening lines, the band entered authoritatively on Bryant’s cue with a rousing 12/8 groove, supporting Tucker as she sang and improvised bluesy decorations on the melodies throughout the song.
After the conclusion of “Feeling Good,” Tucker began the first of a series of anecdotes providing the context of Simone’s life and work and the meaning behind each musical selection. Alternating between historical information, archival footage of Simone’s interviews, and musical selections, Tucker and her accompanying group provided a narrative that highlighted the struggles, successes, and enduring legacy of who Tucker called an “undercelebrated artist.”
The next selection was “My Baby Don’t Care,” an up-tempo shuffle featuring Tucker’s diverse vocal delivery and showcasing a command of timbre changes and back-phrasing of the lyrics with plenty of blues inflections. Endahl was the featured instrumental soloist, playing succinctly with single-note improvisations and double-handed octaves accompanied by the steady groove provided by Bryant, Ruggeri, and Jackson.
After Tucker shared more biographical remarks, the band launched into a medium-tempo swing tune called “Love Me or Leave Me.” Endahl was featured again, performing a style of improvisation in line with what Tucker called “Nina’s classical flair” that she would frequently use in her concerts.
At the conclusion of “Love Me or Leave Me,” Tucker spoke more about the manner in which Simone began exploring music outside that of her upbringing and early professional performances in clubs and cocktail lounges. Tucker segued into a rendition of “Li’l Liza Jane,” one of Simone’s forays into folk music. This up-tempo number featured a steady train-groove by Jackson around which the band played a mostly single-chord vamp. Tucker took up the tambourine on this tune complimenting the driving 16th note rhythms.
It was after this point that Tucker performed one of Simone’s most well-known hits, George and Ira Gershwin’s ballad “I Loves You, Porgy” from Porgy and Bess. Tucker showcased again her dynamic vocal range, treating each phrase with sensitivity and inflection that further enhanced the themes presented in the song. Her timbre explorations were a faithful reproduction of Simone’s own alto voice, and the rubato accompaniment from Endahl strengthened the emotional expression of the tune.
After performing “I Loves You, Porgy,” Tucker gave a brief explanation regarding the abusive nature of Simone’s first marriage leading to the song, “Be My Husband,” which opened with clapping, drums, and vocals with Tucker on tambourine. During this particular song, Tucker featured pronunciation of the lyrics consistent with African American Vernacular English dialects to further enhance the subject matter.
Immediately afterwards, the band transitioned to the classic “I Put a Spell on You” that showcased both Tucker’s and Ruggeri’s blues inflections on the melodies both written and improvised.
After more remarks and the showing of interview footage of Simone, Tucker and her band engaged in a call and response presentation centered around the phrase “too slow”. After this call and response, more interview footage was shown to which the band played along, transitioning into the song “Four Women.” Tucker was especially adept to portraying the four different characters present in the lyrics utilizing her command of tone, dynamics, and inflection.
Following “Four Women,” the band launched into “Sinnerman,” a recording by Simone regarded as one of her most poignant calls for social reform and justice. This up-tempo song built upon the juxtaposition of a fast groove by the band with a more relaxed, back-phrased lyric by Tucker that culminated in another call and response between Tucker and the band on the lyrics “Power! Power, Lord!”
It was after “Sinnerman” that Tucker shared more information regarding Simone’s period in which she had left her husband and lived abroad for a time. This transitioned to Tucker and the band performing “Don’t Let Me be Misunderstood,” a ballad featuring Tucker delivering a technique reminiscent the famed “teardrop” employed to enhance the emotion behind the lyrics.
After “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” another few minutes of biographical information was shared before leading into “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” a song that Tucker mentioned was her most often requested. This medium tempo 12/8 shuffle featured a delicate piano introduction by Endahl and Tucker employing a sultry inflection to the lyrics.
This led to the performing of the gospel classic “Nearer Blessed Lord.” Tucker intensely explored dynamic ranges throughout the song while the band provided a steady groove interspersed with complimentary melodic fills.
Following another showing of interview footage, Tucker and her band performed their final piece in tribute to Simone: “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” This uplifting, up-tempo number featured a full chorus piano introduction by Endahl supported by the rest of the band, and Tucker sang unhinged with full employment of melodic decoration, improvisation, dynamic contrast, and varied rhythms throughout the lyrics. The piece culminated in an extended tag on the phrase “Sing because I knew” after which Tucker exited the stage, leaving the band to close out the performance on a final chorus.
The presentation given by Tucker and supported by her band proved to be an enlightening experience for the audience members present at the Frist museum that day. The next performance and presentation in the Nashville Jazz Workshop’s “Jazz on the Move” series at the Frist Art Museum will take place on April 14, 2019 at 3:00 p.m. featuring saxophonist and Middle Tennessee State University professor Don Aliquo in a program called “Tribute to Stan Getz.” Attendees are advised to arrive early.