Perfected Imperfection

(Copyright Bethlehem Records)

“What moves us in music is the vital sign of a human hand, in all its unsteady and broken grace … The art is the perfected imperfection.” — Adam Gopnik, “Music to Your Ears”, The New Yorker, 28 January 2013

An admission: I may be responsible for a good chunk of the 26,000+ views of Nina Simone’s 1962 recording of “Strawberry Woman/They’s So Fresh and Fine/I Loves You, Porgy”. It’s far and away my favorite Simone recording, and my favorite arrangement of these three songs. These three pieces, once Simone unites them, go so well together, like tea and honey, coffee and chocolate, whiskey and ice. Like a comforting drink, the performance soothes my insides and quiets my chattering mind. It slips under my skin, the gentle thrums of bass and delicate piano managing to reach some previously untouchable place.

The performance, for me, reaches the point of “unsteady and broken grace” between the 1:53 and 2:28 mark, when Simone conducts a soft, vocal-less interlude at the piano. The minor note Simone strikes at 2:16 is, to my ear, almost unbearably beautiful. Set against the subsequent verse and Simone’s deep, smoky vocal delivery, the performance becomes a study in contrasts. The pretty piano and the gruff voice enhance each other, coming together as cleanly and in a fashion as complementary as the three individual songs themselves.

I also love Simone’s deliberateness with this medley, both in pace and pronunciation. She works on her own schedule, taking her time with a particular phrase or note if it pleases her. If there’s a word she’d like to accent (“devil cra-abs”, for example, at the 0:54 mark), she injects a little color — a squeak, a rasp that snaps the lulled ear to attention. With this technique, Simone doesn’t just play the piano — she also plays the audience, controlling their attention by her total preparation of mood and tone. In short, she presents herself as a master of the “perfected imperfection”, fifty-one years before Gopnik even articulated the idea.

This post originally appeared on the Good Taste and Sense of Humor blog.

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