I need to start with a disclosure: About a dozen years ago I wrote the liner notes for a CD by San Francisco jazz and blues vocalist Kim Nalley. I’d covered her before, and I’ve written about her many times since while enjoying her evolution as an artist. Over the years she’s delved deeply into songs associated with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone, and now she’s expanding the songbook herself.
Steeped in a variety of jazz and blues idioms, Nalley turns her attention to unsettling recent events on her new album, "Blues People," her sixth and most impressive release. She covers a lot of emotional ground, but the album’s through line is anger and defiance.
She opens with “Summertime,” the enduring lullaby from “Porgy and Bess” that’s been covered by everyone from Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan to Janis Joplin and the Zombies, though I’ve never heard a version like this.
Rather than lulling a baby to sleep, Nalley and her superlative accompanist, pianist Tammy Hall, evoke the long hot summers that can turn streets into battlefields. It’s a “Summertime” that doubles down on the song’s irony, making it clear that for far too many black folks, the living is anything but easy.