Thursday, October 11, 2012

Pour une âme souveraine: a dedication to Nina Simone, by Meshell Ndegeocello

There is a scene early in Point Of No Return where the assassin initiate, played by Bridget Fonda, informs her trainer-captor that if he wants her co-operation, he will have to provide her with a stereo and a library of Nina Simone CDs. In a movie riddled with curious ineptitudes (a Hollywood remake of Luc Besson's darkly hilarious La Femme Nikita being the first and foremost), this flat note is particularly memorable. Had the filmmakers indulged the conceit any further, Simone's tortured textures would have completely overpowered the fizzy confection at work.

Reflexive reach for Simone is certainly explicable. That woman had a voice that seemed thrown from a titanic collision of heartbreak and defiance. Her recordings were a tapestry of hurt and inner fortitude, strung with threads of insight, woven from a habit of scathing appraisal without and within. And she possessed a killer wit, but not one so self-protective it ever muted her frank expression. Who could blame Fonda & Co. for wanting to pay homage to the glorious Nina Simone, and possibly inject just a smidgen of such substance into the project at hand?

Caution, however, is called for. Simone made herself a study of contrasts. Anyone who willingly strikes a pose beneath Simone's large shadow runs the risk of drawing unintended contrasts of their own, and standing out as what Simone was not: a pretender, looking ridiculous. Most tributes to Nina Simone, however earnest and well-intentioned, contain traces of vanilla — or Fonda-ness.

No such worries for Meshell Ndegeocello, who is no small study in contrasts herself. Her many releases chart a vast domain of heartbreak, defiance and insight all her own. For the past five years, Ndegeocello has cultivated a particularly fertile field, with Devil's Halo and the Joe Henry-produced Weather standing as outstanding sonic and lyrical achievements. Now, with Pour une âme souveraine, Ndegeocello's tribute to Nina Simone, she invites a cast of other singers (including Sinéad O'Connor, Cody Chesnutt and Valerie June) to join her in a shared exploration of what drew Simone to particular material. The combined strength of character and smarts, teamed to Ndegeocello's restless depth of perception brings new light, not just to the current performers, but to the work of Simone as well.

Pour une âme souveraine is the first tribute to Nina Simone I recommend without reservation.

Meshell Ndegeocello.

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