Annenberg double bill featured Simone, Jason Marsalis

March 20, 2012

Pheralyn Dove
The Philadelphia Tribune

Two sets of inspiring, diverse, thought-provoking live music on Saturday night, March 17 at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center showcased the amazing talents of singer Simone, and vibraphonist Jason Marsalis.

Simone’s sassy, soulful tribute to her mother, the incomparable Nina Simone, did not disappoint. Big, beautiful, expansive, warm and rich are adjectives that describe her voice, which is truly uniquely her own and not to be compared with any other. The tall, slender vocalist showcased a range of talent that did her mother’s legacy proud. A charismatic and versatile entertainer, Simone sang, acted, danced and emoted about her mother all night. Simone was “all in,” as they say, giving it up with her head, mouth, arms, hips, and legs all in motion.

She displayed her well-cultivated theater training, having starred in award-winning Broadway roles in musicals such as “Aida” and “Rent.”

During the concert, she shared intimately about her journey as Nina Simone’s only child, and in doing so, proved to be a gifted and captivating storyteller. Simone said her all-consuming passion has been to manage her mother’s estate and preserve her memory since her death on April 21, 2003. This, she said, has not been easy. The rigors have left her “swimming in bloody waters,” with music industry executives as well as close family members. Simone readily took the opportunity to serve up her plentiful wisdom about living life. “Smile, laugh, celebrate and enjoy one another while you’re here. But ladies and gentlemen, it is important to get your affairs in order.”

Stating her preference for the term “Black,” which is inclusive throughout the Diaspora, as opposed to the term “African American,” which is limited to the United States, she unleashed her socially conscious philosophy on stage, as well as during a pre-show chat hosted by Salamishah Tillet, Ph.D., a professor of English and Africana Studies at Penn. Quoting her mother, Simone said, “’It’s an artist’s responsibility to reflect the times.’” She lamented that so many of today’s commercially successful artists are not vocal about political and racial issues. “A lot of young artists today, what do they stand for? Look around,” she said. “We need to do something!”

Her mesmerizing personal story revealed that she is a Gulf War veteran, having served in the United States Air Force as an engineering assistant for 11 years. She told of how her parents discouraged her desires to become a professional entertainer, but that after they saw her on Broadway, they bestowed her with their blessings. By the time she released her debut tribute CD to her mother, Simone was 45 years old.

Indeed, Simone’s appearance was an interesting mix of entertainment, talk therapy and education. The musicians in her band – Marty Mellinger on piano, Dave Gardner on guitar, Bennie Sims on bass and Philadelphia’s own Curtis Harmon from “Pieces of A Dream” on drums, were all leaders in their own right; they elevated the virtuosity of the performance. Her repertoire included an original composition called “Dysfunction,” matchless renderings of classic standards like “Autumn Leaves,” rhythm and blues favorites such as “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” (with her own twist on the lyrics) and a powerful delivery of “The Work Song,” a tune that her mother immortalized.

Sonia Sanchez, the renowned poet, professor and activist attended the concert. Ms. Sanchez said, “This young woman is what I call a miracle worker on stage. She makes you laugh. She makes you cry. She makes you think. She’s excellent. I spoke at Nina’s funeral when she died in ’03, and I just recently sent the prose poem to our dear sister for her mother’s online archive.”

Sanchez said that Simone’s work and life brought to mind a Haiku she recently recited at the memorial services for the late broadcaster, Fatimah Ali. “Listening to her sing, I was reminded of Fatimah. These were the last three lines of the series of Haiku I did for Sister Fatimah: ‘your words carry the spirit of creation.”

Other concert-goers were also impressed with Simone’s prowess. “Simone has a sense of social consciousness. She exuded an intrepid fearlessness that you don’t see in many entertainers and I loved that,” noted Dr. Sonja Peterson-Lewis, a professor in Temple University’s Department of African and African American Studies.

New Orleans-based percussionist Jason Marsalis was the opening act for the evening. He played the vibraphone as the leader of his tightly-disciplined quartet; however he is equally proficient on the trap drums. Early on, as the youngest brother of Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Jason established himself as somewhat as a wunderkind, very precocious as a musician. His proficiency and well-defined musical chops were apparent from the moment he took the stage. His creativity and technical abilities extend into the realm of composition, and it was a treat to learn that most of the songs he played Saturday night were originals. Marsalis and his sidemen displayed a cohesiveness that can only be accomplished through a mix of virtuosity, mastery on their instruments, hard work and inspiration. Rounding out his quartet were Austin Johnson on piano, Will Goble on bass and David Potter on drums.

The highpoint of their set came near the end, when Marsalis whistled all of the voicings of a ballad, complete with improvised solos. He said he had first began to whistle as a child, when his parents gave him the book, “The Boy Who Could Whistle,” by Ezra Jack Keats.

“I enjoy doing what I’m doing because I believe in the music and I want the audience to believe in it as well,” said Marsalis after the concert. “I also want music that we as musicians also enjoy and translate that to the audience.”

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