(Pizza on the Park, March 4th 2010, review by Zena James and Sarah Ellen Hughes)
Haitian-born New York vocalist Pauline Jean had four dates in London this week on her first European presentation of a Nina Simone tribute. An eclectic contralto singer with an impressive and satisfying lower register, she was occasionally reminiscent of a smoother Cassandra Wilson, at other times of a gutsy Diane Reeves.
Beautiful, elegant and physically expressive, Pauline delivered an interesting programme with grace and poise. Highlights of the gig were the emotionally charged Simone anthem Four Women (1966), the conviction of Billie Holiday’s Tell Me More and Then Some, and an original tribute to Haiti sung in her native Kreyòl. That number gave a glimpse of the passionate vocalist Pauline can be, particularly when she delivers her own material.
But in her tribute to Nina Simone, something of the guts, the personality and the vibe of Nina Simone went missing. And she probably would have given a stronger, more convincing and less hesitant performance if she’d had more unified support from the band, Alex Web-piano, Gary Crosby -bass and Rod Youngs-drums
There was a strange lack of cohesion at times, it somehow just didn’t swing. There were some well-choreographed numbers, and Pauline made an effort to engage the audience and the band, but it seemed that the group hadn’t played together enough to really let go and let the music happen.
But a few tunes saved the day. Simone’s Four Women was the obvious winner, delivered with passion, drama, high-tuned toms – which added an extra dimension that merged beautifully with the vocals – and a moody bass line. The 1930’s American folk song made popular by Simone, Sea Lion Woman got the small, reserved audience involved and made a much-needed connection between singer and listener.
Pauline Jean’s usual repertoire includes original compositions, standards, blues and traditional Afro-Haitian music fused with jazz. Somehow on Thursday she didn’t live up to the expectations left by her recordings – she released a likeable debut CD, A Musical Offering (Sekonsa)in 2009.
I am so glad you appreciate the expressive and talented Ms. Jean! She is creating a buzz and has much to offer. It's worth noting that she isn't a Nina “impersonator” – but she is a singer who reveres Ms. Simone and is dedicated to honoring her legacy. Just a tiny correction – the name of the song – for those who may wish to locate it – is See Line, not Sea Lion woman.
Zena James has responded by email:
We had of course checked the spelling of Sea Lion Woman and we chose the first one Wiki went for :
I'm sorry, I'm confused. The first part of the critique is all positive and then it goes into a negative spin.
Do you believe in reincarnation? Don't quite think Pauline was trying to revive Nina Simone's “spirit”.
She is Pauline Jean. She interprets Nina in her own way, beautifully, with elegance and physically expressive…your words, not mine.
The “spirit” critique sort of rubbed me the wrong way.
I'm guessing you want an audience to validate your profession as a critic…oh wait a minute…you're a musician right?
Hmmmm….a musician criticizing another….not fair!
Thank you, anonymous, you have raised some really interesting points.
The LondonJazz site aims above all to inform, entertain, and to rub people up the right way. And that is what most people tell me it does. Just about all of the time.
I don't think there's really a confusion here, and will back Zena and Sarah on this one.
The article doesn't go into a negative spin. It starts and ends on very positive remarks merely with a couple of observations in the middle that were less about Pauline Jean, and more about the vibe of the band at some points on the night.
They found that some of the Nina Simone repertoire worked well for Pauline Jean. They also really gained a lot of pleasure from the authentic/interesting/unique voice which they felt emerged in some of the other material.
So, I really don't have a problem with any of that.
I'd also like to respond to your “one musician criticizing another…not fair” remark.
A significant proportion of our reviews at LondonJazz are written by musicians.
To what purpose, I have asked myself, should musicians be gagged and prevented from sharing their opinions?
So, this thought has continued, let's find ways to shorten the chains of communication here, of getting people closer to the music.
If you want to point the finger at a critic who has a real conflict of interest, then here's my tuppence. I think that someone should try to land that blow on Simon Cowell.
Preferably with a demolition ball or a car crusher to hand.
I find the opinions of intelligent musicians like Zena, or Frank Griffith, Pete Whittaker, Dylan Howe, Kate Williams, Rod Fogg, all of whom have written for LondonJazz – or indeed those of the late Ian Carr, or of Brian Priestley – are invariably of interest, always of value.
They are people with a sense of ethics, and the tendency to be painstakingly scrupulous and fair.
If you want to hear a personal and creative hommage to the extraordinary Nina Simone, go hear Gill Manly. It's done with originality and humour.Pauline is indeed very elegant and very beautiful..all the more reason for her to forge her own path and not do this show.
Correction with regard to See Line Woman. When researching this song it appears that it was an original call and response song from the cotton fields and was a song sung to warn men of the women in town. See Lying Woman. That was the original title…..It all makes sense then when you read the full lyric.