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Like most people with a pulse and a soul, we were riveted by the documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?. It’s rare that an artist of such esteem is dealt with so candidly, while her genius is shown as something powerful enough to shine through her career-threatening demons and defiance. The documentary also let us hear every facet of her art — a virtuosic classical and jazz pianist, an impassioned vocalist, and a woman with an unparalleled ability to transform the meaning of a song through the force of her voice and her fearlessness in expanding, rearranging and improvising melodies to suit her whim.
There are plenty of places to start exploring Nina Simone’s music, from the songs that have worked their way into our cultural fabric through soundtracks and TV commercials to the more challenging music she made as she evolved musically, personally and politically. One thing we’d beg you to check out on the way is her epic expansion of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity.”
She sings, she cries, she preaches. And she plays her ass off
Harrison wrote the song about the breakup of the Beatles, but Simone moves it somewhere more personal in terms of her own struggles and more global in terms of the civil rights movement and the disillusionment that followed. She makes critical changes to the lyrics — sometimes as simple as changing a pronoun, sometimes profound as adding entire lines that call the motives, morality and future of all mankind in to question — and with little more than her voice and piano, turns a rock song in to an expansive mix of all the music she knows, from Bach to the blues to gospel to jazz. She sings, she cries, she preaches. And she plays her ass off. It’s a performance as complex and beautiful and challenging as Miss Simone herself. And the perfect coda to that perfect documentary.