Kim Nalley Brings the Blues Home With New Album 'Blues People'

Kim Nalley

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.

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Nalley follows that with a song she wrote in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin, “Big Hooded Black Man.” It may be ripped from the headlines, but like Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” a relentless groove and starkly pointed lyrics transform a topical spark into a timeless blue-hot flame. Which isn’t to say that the only thing on her mind is righteous anger.

She’s a master of the double entendre blues, and she offers three gems of the genre with Bessie Smith’s bawdy “Sugar In My Bowl,” Andy Razaf’s hilarious “The Chair Song,” and my favorite, because it always makes me blush, “Trombone Song (Big Long Slidin’ Thing),” a tune delivered with expert timing and maximum salaciousness.

Her abundant vocal skills are only part of the reason why Nalley has been one the Bay Area’s busiest and most consistently entertaining vocalists for more than two decades. She’s also a savvy bandleader who’s worked for years with the same world-class crew that accompanies her here, including bassist Michael Zisman, drummer Kent Bryson and guitarist Greg Skaff (Bryan Dyer provides soul-steeped backing vocals on several tracks).

Whether Nalley is laying down some serious funk on a medley weaving together the Les McCann/Eddie Harris hits, “Listen Here/Cold Duck/Compared to What,” or evoking Mahalia Jackson with two versions of the spiritual “Trouble of the World” (one acoustic, the other with Tammy Hall on organ), the band provides just the right rhythmic feel for her to groove or soar.

More than any of her previous albums, "Blues People" is a musical manifesto, and it’s no coincidence that the title echoes the seminal 1963 book of cultural criticism by LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka). Nalley, who’s working on her doctoral dissertation in American history at UC Berkeley, makes her case for the depth, resilience and abiding humanity of black culture track by track.

Her music embodies a seamless African-American aesthetic encompassing the sacred and profane, the spiritual and the sensual, high art and popular culture, like her gospelized version of “Movin’ On Up,” the aspirational theme song from the 1970s sit-com, "The Jeffersons ."

The album’s only misfire is the last piece, “I Shall Be Released.” The arrangement is fine, but on an album marked by sudden emotional shifts, Bob Dylan’s anthem of liberation could have packed a bigger punch. But that’s a quibble. This is the time of year when music writers start thinking about Top 10 lists, and "Blues People" is a sure bet for mine.