Nina Simone

The New York Times
Stephen Holden 6 June 1983

MOST pop musicians are happy just to please an audience. But the obstreperous and brilliant Nina Simone, who returned to New York to sing at Swing Plaza this weekend after a five-year absence, demands more than polite appreciation.

Rooted in extreme emotional ambivalence, her performances have the aura of sacramental rites, in which a priestess and her flock work to establish a mystical communion. Because of Miss Simone's fabled temperament, however, communion is not a foregone conclusion. Each performance becomes a group psychodrama that could as easily topple into disaster as soar into triumph. But at Swing Plaza on Friday, Miss Simone triumphed over an obvious case of nerves and physical discomfort to end up smiling.

Performing with two percussionists and a bass player, the singer and pianist delivered a set that began on a note of brooding retrospection and surged to a peak of wild exultation. Repeatedly, Miss Simone took familiar material and recharged it with her ferocious pianism and radically personal interpretations. Miss Simone's rewritten version of Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" is an autobiographical epic that recounts the death of her father and its emotional aftermath with an astonishing candor.

"My Way," arranged for Caribbean percussion and hard, acceleratede piano chords, emerged, with a few key lyrical changes, as an outspokeen feminist anthem. Murmured as though the words were just surfacing in her memory, Jacques Brel's "Ne Me Quitte Pas" took on the aura of a painful childhood reverie.

Nina Simone's vocal range has never been broad, and in recent years her contralto has deepened into a mannish baritone. But if anything, her singing has gained in expressive breadth. The harsher, guttural edges of her voice add to the edge of hostility that has always been one of her trademarks. But Miss Simone is also still capable of beautifully rounded clarinetlike tones, which colored her rendition of "Bill." From a towering "Pirate Jenny" to a playful "Liberian Calypso," Miss Simone ran the emotional gamut.