Jaime Nanci - singin’ the Nina Simone blues

SHE CROONED confidently how ‘My baby just cares for me’; raged against racism and killings of African-Americans in ‘Mississippi Goddamn’, turned a song from a musical, ‘Ain’t Got No, I Got Life’ into a cry of black pride, and penned her own civil rights anthem in ‘To Be Young Gifted, and Black’.

Nina Simone - jazz, blues, and soul singer; songwriter, pianist, classical musician, civil rights activist, controversial and tempestuous artist, black cultural icon - was a towering figure of post WWII music and her incredible songs will be celebrated at an acclaimed new show Jaime Nanci Sings...Nina Simone.

Jaime Nanci & The Blue Boys will perform classics from the Nina Simone songbook in Monroe’s Backstage Bar on Thursday May 2 at 8.30pm.

Although originally from Dundalk, Jaime will be well known to many Galwegians, as he lived in the city for 14 years and was the lead singer of the Galway based Cuckoo Savante, which thrilled audiences with their mix of jazz, cabaret, and torch song with an indie sensibility, through their live shows and much praised album Lemonstown Lies.

Although now based in Dublin, Jaime regularly returns to Galway where he teaches a course on millinery at the GMIT. Otherwise he and The Blue Boys - Pawel Grudzien (piano ), Dave Redmond (double bass ), Abel Benito (drums ), and Ciaran Wilde (saxophone ) - maintain an extremely busy schedule of gigs around Ireland, and even in New York, where their recent Nina Simone shows in The Big Apple went down a treat.

Discovering Nina

Jaime’s journey to jazz and blues - and Nina Simone - is thanks to his father, who “loves blues, loves all music”.

“He has a very diverse taste - Ry Cooder, John Lee Hooker, Bette Midler - he’d always be trying to turn us onto different things,” Jaime tells me during our Wednesday afternoon conversation. “He would have turned me onto Nina Simone. When I was a teen I was into goth and punk, and Jeff Buckley, and I would have heard Buckley’s version of ‘Lilac Wine’ which Nina Simone also sang, and I remembered my dad playing her, so my love for Nina Simone started there.”

When Jaime turned to singing jazz, incorporating Nina Simone songs into the set was natural. Cuckoo Savante would often perform ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ and ‘Lilac Wine’, a tradition continued in The Blue Boys. It was from this Jaime developed the idea for Jaime Nanci Sings...Nina Simone.

“I wanted to do a themed show paying tribute to her,” he says. “It won’t be telling the story of her life, or performing songs in chronological order, it’s based around our favourite songs of hers. It’s a two hour show and opens with an a cappella number I sing in the shower. I was going to perform it in a towel and shower cap but then thought better of it.”

The show is a labour of love for Jaime and the band, as he reveals when talking about the songs to be performed on the night.

“The song that terrifies me most to have to sing, but that is the most important to me, is ‘Gin House Blues’,” says Jaime. “My dad asked me to sing that and the show is dedicated to my dad. He loves our recording of it, so it is an emotional one for me to sing. We also have fun, such as ‘Sugar In My bowl’, which is a filthy song, and Ciaran always plays amazing sax on it.”

For Jaime, Nina Simone is also someone he feels a certain affinity with - both musically and politically.

“I love her voice,” he says. “People tell me I sing like a black woman - which is a compliment - and many people thought Nina Simone sang like a man, she had an unusually deep register. Her voice was on the border of androgyny, and I think mine is as well.”

While the show does not specifically go into detail about Simone’s life, it does reference various events, such as her civil rights activism in the 1960s and 1970s, which she persued through her choice of song covers and the original material she penned.

“We perform her version of ‘Strange Fruit’, and ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ about a horrific bombing of an African-American church,” he says. “I guess I can’t talk about the work she did without referencing gay rights and the struggle for marriage equality [Jaime was married in Capetown three years ago to Michael], not that I would equate the two. They are separate and what black Americans faced in their struggle was far worse, but you do feel inspired by their search for equality.”

While Simone is an iconic and influential figure - Nick Cave, Christina Aguilera, Mos Def, Kanye West, Cat Stevens, Peter Gabriel, Mary J Blige, and Alicia Keys have all cited her as an inspiration - she was a highly controversial, temperamental, figure.

She once turned up at a concert, at which she was scheduled to play jazz and blues, laden with two bags full of groceries, put them beside the piano stool, banged out a number of classical pieces, and stormed off the stage, without a word to the audience. Infamously she even shot and wounded a neighbour because his laugh annoyed her.

“She was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder in the 1970s but didn’t speak about it until much later,” says Jaime. “She did have a lot of issues. As a black woman in the US she had a struggle and fight to get into college and study music. She was classically trained but it was not seen as something black people did, and she was discouraged from performing the music, that’s why she went into jazz and blues.

“Then her money was taken by her record company and she decided to leave America and live in Paris, as in Europe she was much more appreciated. I can understand why she would have been so angry, emotional, and volatile.”

Jaime Nanci & The Blue Boys have a live album, recorded in Dublin and New York, of songs from the show, which will be on sale in Monroe’s during the gig. A studio album is forthcoming later this year.

Tickets are available on the door or through www.monroes.ie and 091 - 583397.

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