I bought four records that day. Two of them I don't recall. Of the other two, one was Mavis Meets Shorty, by jazz singer Mavis Rivers and trumpeter Shorty Rogers. This was an album of mostly sprightly, optimistic up-tempo songs, as was usual for Mavis Rivers, who had one of the most cheerful voices in jazz -- certainly as bright and sunny as Ella Fitzgerald at her most exuberant. Mavis couldn't have done a dark and moody rendition of even the gloomiest of ballads to save her life -- or her career. She never became a major star, but released a long string of pleasant albums which achieved modest success. Still, that particular album became one of my favorites, and I listened to it often.
The other album I remember buying that day was that by Nina Simone. I don't remember the title, if in fact it had one, but I remember the cover. It was a picture of a stream in Central Park in New York City, with the old skyscrapers (one of them since replaced by the appalling Trump Tower) east of Grand Army Plaza reflected in it, on a gray day. It was a moody photograph for a moody album. I had only heard one song from the album, played once on the radio. It was the most melancholy rendition of Little Girl Blue that I had ever heard, in a very simple arrangement with Nina Simone accompanied by her own piano. On the strength of that one song, I bought the album, and never regretted it. In both style and content, it was almost the antithesis of the Mavis Rivers album. Almost every song was dark and brooding, some with an undercurrent of anger or vengefulness, all with a deep sense of loss. One exception was a version of My Baby Just Cares for Me done in a tempo that was almost sprightly. She even let out a short laugh at the end of the song. Yet even here, in this optimistic lyric, Simone's voice managed to convey a sense of underlying uncertainty, and even of menace, as though Baby might fool around on her, and if he ever did, then Baby better watch out! Nina Simone was a remarkably subtle and expressive singer.
It is easy enough to describe Mavis Rivers' sunny and transparent voice and style, but Nina Simone is different. Her singing had weight, and presence, to be sure. There was always an edge to it, and yet through its rough and sometimes bitter tones, there was always a sense of triumph. She was like some of the classic blues singers, such as Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey. It was the voice of an indomitable spirit. Her piano playing was also quite remarkable. She could play all the wrong chords to a song, and make them sound exactly right, as though that was the way the song ought to have been written. Nina Simone did things her way, and in shattering the listener's expectations, conveyed a sense of joy that shone through even the gloomiest of songs.
As this afternoon's quick storm moved east, the evening sun escaped the drifting clouds even as the rain continued to fall. Through my window I could see the bright light falling on the pale young leaves of the oaks, with the emerging blue sky behind them and a curtain of silver rain before them. It occurred to me that this might be the best way to describe Nina Simone's music: it was like light falling through a storm.