Prom 45: Mississippi Goddam: A Homage to Nina Simone

“Singer, songwriter, arranger and political activist – Nina Simone is a giant of jazz history. She is celebrated in all her guises in a Prom led by Jules Buckley and the Metropole Orkest, together with special guests.” [BBC Proms website]

Ledisi (singer) & Lisa Fischer (singer) with LaSharVu (backing vocalists); Metropole Orkest/Jules Buckley

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 21 August, 2019
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

BBC Proms 2019's Prom 45Jules Buckley conducts the Metropole Orkest and vocalists Ledisi, Lisa Fisher and backing vocalists LaSharVu in Mississippi Goddam: A homage to Nina SimonePhotograph: Mark Allan / BBCProms with the Metropole Orkest and Jules Buckley have become almost as much an annual event as those by John Wilson, though here the emphasis is less on getting back to the source of the music or artist in question than recreating its spirit from the perspective of the present. With her roots variously in classical, jazz, gospel and soul, and an artist whose songs extend from protest to confessional, Nina Simone (1933-2003) was ideally suited to the contextual makeover as has been key to Buckley’s concerts this past decade – and so it proved here.

The scene was set by an instrumental medley of Simone’s African Mailman with traditional number Sinnerman, its plaintive trumpet solo cushioned against the full orchestral backdrop to which backing singers LaSharVu made a bracing contribution. Lisa Fischer gave a pathos-laden vocal to Jack Hammer’s Plain Gold Ring, even though most of its words were inaudible as rendered – unlike with Ledisi’s soulful take on Richard Rodgers’s Little Girl Blue and its wistful allusions to a favourite Christmas carol. Fischer returned for Walter Donaldson’s My Baby Just Cares for Me, belatedly Simone’s signature tune (thanks to a Chanel commercial) whose vamping accompaniment and breezy trumpet break captured the spirit of the original.

BBC Proms 2019's Prom 45Jules Buckley conducts the Metropole Orkest and vocalists Ledisi, Lisa Fisher and backing vocalists LaSharVu in Mississippi Goddam: A homage to Nina SimonePhotograph: Mark Allan / BBCLedisi was no-less inside the high-drama of Jalacy Hawkins’s I Put a Spell on You, her vocal curiously redolent of Eartha Kitt with the sax solo only adding to the histrionic aura, whereas Fischer evoked Shirley Bassey with her soaring take on Bennie Benjamin’s Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, then Ledisi gave an emotional rendering of Jacques Brel’s Ne me quitte pas – adeptly alternating French and English – but for this much-covered song Dusty Springfield remains the touchstone. Gershwin’s I Loves You, Porgy proved a fine showcase for Fischer, though the less said about her effortful take on Purcell’s When I am laid in earth and its faux Morricone arrangement the better. Not so Rudy Stevenson’s I’m Going Back Home – one of Simone’s most infectious numbers, which requires panache such as Ledisi had in spades.

She duly launched the second half with an energetic take on Nat Adderley’s Work Song, here with its piano intro that Simone world have appreciated (though not the tinny electric tone!), before Fischer tapped into the dark sensuousness of the traditional See-Line Woman with its impulsive beat and gritty electric-guitar solo. All five vocalists then came together for Andy Stroud’s plangent (and deeply ironic) Be My Husband, its affect undercut by the Queen-like arrangement, though there were no such problems in Randy Newman’s Baltimore with its funk bass and catchy rhythmic ostinato around which Ledisi uncoiled a bewitching vocal.

Fischer and LaSharVu were hardly less inside the idiom of Dambala by Exuma (aka Tony McKay) with its drone harmonies and sultry evocativeness audibly of its time, before Ledisi pulled out the stops for Simone’s Mississippi Goddam – one of the indelible protest songs not least for its sassily upbeat nature. The fraught four-way outpouring of Simone’s Four Women were powerfully in evidence, then the scheduled programme ended with a medley in which Ledisi rendered Thomas Dorsey’s spiritual Take My Hand, Precious Lord as a solo leading into Billy Taylor’s I Wish I Knew How (It Would Feel to Be Free) – one of Simone’s most inspiriting and affirmative numbers, here making for the appropriately upbeat conclusion.

BBC Proms 2019's Prom 45Jules Buckley conducts the Metropole Orkest and vocalists Ledisi, Lisa Fisher and backing vocalists LaSharVu in Mississippi Goddam: A homage to Nina SimonePhotograph: Mark Allan / BBCWhile it would be easy to quibble with certain aspects of what was heard or not heard here, especially the general absence (or should that be avoidance?) of the piano introductions and extemporisations of which Simone was a true master, the essential qualities of her musical ethos largely came through in the vocal renditions and (most of the time) the arrangements. Not least when Lisa Fischer and Ledisi returned with an impressively OTT take on Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s Feeling Good, which summed up this evening.

Playlist (not edited for house-style):
Nina Simone/Trad. arr. Jochen Neuffer: African Mailman/Sinnerman
Jack Hammer arr. Rob Taggart: Plain Gold Ring
Richard Rodgers arr. Evan Jolly: Little Girl Blue
Walter Donaldson arr. Jochen Neuffer: My Baby Just Cares
Jalacy Hawkins arr. Jeremy Levy: I Put A Spell On You
Bennie Benjamin/Horace Ott/Sol Marcus arr. Jeremy Levy: Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
Jacques Brel arr. Sebastian Koolhoven: Ne Me Quitte Pas
George Gershwin arr. Chris Walden: I Loves You Porgy
Henry Purcell arr. Chris Walden: Dido’s Lament
Rudy Stevenson arr. Tim Davies: I’m Going Back Home
Nat Adderly arr. Willem Friede: Work Song
Trad. arr. Damiano Pascarelli: See-Line Woman
Andy Stroud arr. Jules Buckley: Be my Husband
Randy Newman arr. Vladimir Nikolov: Baltimore Exuma arr. Jules Buckley: Dambala
Nina Simone arr. Vladimir Nikolov: Mississippi Goddam
Nina Simone, arr. Tim Davies: Four Women
Trad./Billy Taylor/Dick Dallas arr. Ilja Reijngoud: Take My Hand, Precious Lord / I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free

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