Last night I had the pleasure of catching local jazz diva Kim Nalley play a divine set of Nina Simone songs in the elegant and intimate Rrazz Room at the Hotel Nikko in SF. Kim has been doing her tribute to the great Nina Simone from mid-June, finishing up on July 17. What made last night particularly special was that it was specifically organized for dancers as well as listeners. So of course I had to be there!
Bringing such a multi-talented, multi-genre musician as Nina Simone to the stage is a daunting task. But Kim has clearly been preparing for this role her whole life, since, as she writes, "the only jazz I grew up to in my house was Nina Simone." Coming from a multi-generational jazz family, Kim has a accomplished career as a jazz singer, touring internationally, recording several CDs and collaborating with such artists as Rhoda Scott, David "Fathead" Newman, Houston Person, James Williams, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony.
Nina Simone was an expert pianist as well as a vocalist, so filling the piano stool is a tall order. Tammy Lynn Hall, an accomplished jazz musician and singer herself, made it look easy last night. Rounding out the band are Michael Zisman, Kent Bryson, Josh Workman, and Greg Skaff.
Last night was particularly awesome because Kim decided to make a special night just for the swing and blues dancers, who have long been some of her most ardent fans. The management pulled back the chairs in the front to make a tiny dance floor and discount tickets were made available for dancers. It was great seeing the huge turnout from the SF swing and blues community, as well as a packed listening audience.
Kim could have just played some of Nina's most dance-able standards and we would have been in heaven. But instead, she put on a SHOW. There was storytelling about who Nina Simone was, what she stood for as an activist, and how hard she had to work to get where she was. The Song "Mississippi Goddam" featured a moving photo tribute to the civil rights activists of the era. And a beautiful painting of Nina Simone by dancer / artist Jeremy Sutton sat stage right the whole time.
At one point, Kim eschewed the mic and sang accapella, walking around the silent room singing to each of us. It was one of those powerful moments that reminded me about why jazz is best experienced live in a small venue.
But of course, we came to dance! It was challenging trying to cram 40-some dancers onto the postage stamp sized dance floor, but someone we managed without injury or violence. I had a hilarious dance with my friend Liz in the aisle near the stage, negotiating passing waiters and patrons, a two-level carpeted surface, and banisters in our way. It reminded me of what dancing in New York bars is often like!
The evening could have gone on and on. But the band finished up their set, the dancers did a final shim-sham together, and we made out way home, sharing hugs and kisses as we left. Kim was right there outside the door to greet folks and thank them for coming. Such a class act.
Apparently Kim Nalley used to play a regular gig at Le Colonial, which must have been amazing! Maybe Rrazz Room will have us back on the regular? That would be so awesome.
Kim Nalley is performing at the Rrazz Room just until July 17. Click here for tickets. And you can bring the concert home with Kim's CD "She Put A Spell on Me: Kim Nalley Sings Nina Simone."