Nina Simone: Queen of Interpretation, Ruler of Improvisation


“She had finally gathered in the whole audience with her love chants and work songs, her tearful ballads of love requited and un-.  Nina’s voice never overpowering is an even more fragile instrument. As she works more she will get stronger and more in control.

“She still has a sound and presence that sum up the whole epic of human feeling

Amiri Baraka wrote these words about his friend the great Nina Simone. Though I never met her or heard her perform live, I feel him on that last sentence. “The whole epic of human feeling


The House of the Rising Sun- Nina Simone

I once fell into a Nina Simone YouTube rabbit hole.  Started with her version of House of the Rising Sun then onto Sinnerman, then I just clicked and clicked on more of her music. Happiness, worry, anger, and some two step type dance moves all came out during this session. I awoke from my trance about an hour later. I had to ask myself. How was she able to do this? How does she have the ability to put chills down your spine? Take over your consciousness. What is she doing that sounds so divine? How does she encompass the whole epic of human feeling? Well,

The uniqueness of her voice is paramount. The timbre of her vocal is different from any other singer. The moment the first note vibrates you know exactly who is singing, and as a whole the music she creates invokes the foundations of Black Music.

For more on the foundations (

Nina melded together Work Songs and Gospel with masterful Jazz improv. She possessed the soul of the Black church, the harmonic knowledge of a classical musician, and a burning fire for social justice. Put all these traits together and you have yourself an icon of modern music.

So, let’s talk about the music!

Nina Simone was master of interpretation and ruled the stage with improvisation.

Musical interpretation is the “way” in which Nina decided to perform an already existing piece of music.

Improvisation-  Includes all the ill ad-libs, piano runs, shouts, hollers and solos Nina and the band perform on the spot. Taking what may be a pre-arranged piece and adding that brand new flavor in your ear, in real time.

One of the best ways to analyze differences in interpretation is through the art of the cover. Nina was a prolific original songwriter, however some of her most famous songs are covers.

In the Western music scale there are only 12 pitches that can be played. A, A# ,B,C,C#,D,D#,E,F,F#,G,G#, or their corresponding flats. No matter if you are rocking out to Metallica, vibing on King Tubby or bumping some DJ Premier. You are only hearing those 12 pitches. So what makes each style or song different from the next?

I would say the difference is in how the musicians interpret the notes using musical elements, and what instruments are being played.

Let’s listen two very famous Nina Simone songs. Both of these tunes she covered, but killed em in such dramatic fashion that she took possession of the song. You will hear the original and then her version back to back.  

As you listen look out for differences in these musical elements.  Try to figure out what made her version the seminal one.

Tempo- How fast or slow she plays

Dynamics– How loud or soft she plays

Timbre ( pronounced tambor)- The characteristic sound that an instrument produces. In her case the voice is the most distinctive.

Arrangement– Where sections of music are placed within a composition. Nina does a lot of repeating phrases, section extensions and just straight up improv.

Expression- How Nina talks to our soul with her voice, her playing, and human energy.



Feeling Good

Feeling Good is a song originally written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley for the musical “The Roar of the Greasepaint- The Smell of the Crowd.


Feeling GoodSung by Cy Grant (Roar of the Greasepaint-The Smell of the Crowd)



Feeling Good- Nina Simone


What did Nina do to this piece to make it rightfully hers? Number one, she added  syncopation and improvisation to the vocal. She places accents in the most perfect little rhythmic pockets, and never uses the same pocket twice.

Musically we would say she has more freedom with her “rhythmic phrasing” (Where you place notes within the flow of the meter) as compared to Cy Grant.

He sang the song with a very “Theatre” sounding timbre. Almost like an orator, he pronounced every lyric properly, and sang very straight ahead rhythmically. Nina on the other hand just oozes black church. She say’s “Suuuuun up in the skyyyyy Youknow howi  feeeeeel. Slurring words together, letting her feelings and emotions come to the forefront.

She adds some classic ad libs- “Dragonfly out in the sun you know what I mean -Dontcha Know- There is just a sense of honesty and freedom in her delivery that makes the listener want more.

Both versions open up with just a vocal and no instruments. What stands out is the choice of instruments used to bring in the verse. The original piece used some bass, light percussion and a flute, eventually a trumpet does some accompaniment.

But Nina! Whoa, there is a horn section! They come in playing a descending pattern that sets the tone for the whole piece. It’s that part that makes you want to sway your hips and snap your fingers.

A big horn section playing a funky line can make a track. Think about what the horn line did to Spottiottiedopalicious by Outkast.


Spottieottiedopalicious- OutKast

As soon as you hear  Dada dot da daaaa, you know it’s Spottie. When we hear the horns Nina used, we know we are hearing “Feeling good”  immediately, no question.

The ability to improvise is a necessity within Black Music. We have been coming up with songs, dances and jokes on the spot since day one. We let our spirit lead, all you gotta do is let the beat ride out and see what happens. What happens is Call and Response, Field Hollers, Ring shouts at Congo Square, chain gang work songs, Jazz soloing, Rap Freestyle battles, Soul Train lines, and Scat singing.  

Scat singing is a method where the singer uses the voice to imitate an instrument, usually in a spontaneous fashion. Often times using guttural sounds and combinations of words. Words that are not meant to make sentences. Just to make musical phrases

Nina does a masterful job of scatting at the end of Feeling Good. Around 2:20 she goes into a section that contains no words or lyrics, just sounds. Sounds that not only help build tension as the song ends, but they also shine a light on her originality and willingness to be totally free with her music. Honestly I could listen to her do that ending over and over again. It always stands out to me. That kind of shouting and hollering she does, it’s just  pure guts being poured out onto a recording. Dapatidapatiidaaaaaaaaa,baaambadiaaaapaaaninaaaaaa, moaniamoana, neeehaaaaa neeehhaaaa iiiimm feeeeeeling, goooooooood!  (that’s how it sounds to me) I get chills just writing it.

In the end I would say that Expression and Timbre were the elements that separate her version from the original. 

Listening to Nina’s musical  expression is like an amazing piece of marble. Marble has intricate patterns and layers that took a long time to form. It is very smooth but also hard.  Let us not forget that marble is  extremely beautiful, and every piece is unique. Just like Nina Simone’s music and musical expressions.

Her freedom of expression is what leads and shapes her sound. The Timbre of Nina’s version is more soulful due the prominence of the rhythm section and the horn riff. She also puts more momentum in the tempo, allowing the band swing and drive with a grittier feel.

It’s the feel that makes “Feeling Good” Nina’s song. No question, she owns it now.


This song has incredible DNA. From folk spiritual to, gospel, to barbershop quartets. It just has Black music roots all up in it. Many additions and interpretations came before Nina got to it but continuity of culture keeps this music alive and growing.

Let’s start with the lyricial history.

The lyric  “The Rock cried Out”  and “Oh Sinnerman”  (about 1:48) originated with 

“No Hiding Place Down Here” and old Negro Spiritual. Here is a quartet version.



Then The Sensational Nightingales got a hold of it in 1954 and recorded a song called

“On Judgment Day”

They added the “Sinnerman, where you gonna run to” and do a soul infused barbershop quartet version.


On Judgment Day- The Sensational Nightingales (this is a rough recording, apologies)


Leading us to our listening comparison. Try to listen out for the same elements. Tempo, Timbre, arrangement, dynamics, expression.

Les Baxter- Sinnerman



Nina Simone- Sinnerman


In her version Nina alters every element of music we are analyzing. Tempo, Timbre, Dynamics and arrangement are all dramatically shifted.  She turns the piece upside down, employing Classical music, Blues, Jazz, and Gospel techniques. She also arranged the song into several extended sections that make this piece truly legendary.

Tempo- The main difference you hear right away is the driving rhythm section. The hi hats and Nina on the Piano set a feel that has more momentum than the original, but is actually slower in tempo. The pace feels like she is taking us somewhere, and you want to present on this trip.

Timbre– The Les Baxter version uses instrumentation that gives the tune a folk/rock sound. The rhythm guitar is leading the feel, where as in Nina’s version it is the drums and piano.

Once again, the voice, it’s own very special instrument. She just gives this tune so much soul “The whole epic of human feeling” all in one song.

Also notice the accents and freedom of expression Nina has with the vocal. Les Baxter sings it like “`Sinnerman Where you gonna run to, Sinnerman. With the emphasis on first syllable. When Nina sings

“Oh, sinnerman…… where you gon run to, sinnerman……where ya gon runto- all on that day.

It is much more laid back and relaxed. The phrases just flow together. Sometimes she leaves a word or phrase out, then picks back up the next time around.

She also is a master of back-phrasing. Back phrasing is when you speed up or slow down a portion of the lyrics to add color and emotion. Being slightly behind or ahead  the beat creates a certain feel that draws the listener in. Here is an excellent explanation of back phrasing.

Killing me Softly sung- Straight ahead with no anticipation, then hear how it really sounds with the singer ahead of the beat.  Hit the link below to check out the explanation.


Les Baxter– He uses the last 45 seconds or so to really up the volume. They sing and play with more fervor, you can tell the end is nearing, as they build into a clean finish.

Nina’s version

This is a 10 min song. With unpredictable changes in dynamics. It starts off at a medium volume with a nice pulse. Nina plays and sings through the verse and chorus steadily getting louder and louder. The Vocal picks up steam as she elevates the volume, and the power of the delivery. Eventually  background singers come in helping us to reach an apex.  Then they stop short and go into a quiet instrumental portion for a few minutes. Next they pick up speed and tempo again to finish out with the “Get By”  Piano sample. The song is a journey. Up and down, loud and soft, funky and smooth. Blues and Jazz, Gospel with soul by pound. So much to listen to. 

Arrangement– Lex Baxters version has a simple arrangement that repeats throughout the song. A section where he sings the lyrics with a more dynamic rhythm section, a portion where he kind of talks over the beat, then a bass guitar interlude, back to the top. As it moves on background vocals come in as well as some strings, and it gets a very Hollywood in the 1950’s polished sound. I like the dramatic ending of this arrangement a lot.

Nina just owned the song with her arrangement.

  1. Opening piano and percussion
  2. About three minutes of verse/ chorus
  3. One minute of improvising over Nina belting out – POWEEEEER, POWWEEEEER.
  4. Next we have 2 min of jazz improvisation- that just sounds so sweet. The guitar is playing little blues chords just in the right spot. The bassist is playing some excellent supportive harmony creating several layers of listening. Nina in the background adding hand claps.
  5. You hear Nina come in with a very familiar piano sample. (Talib Kweli- Get By)
  6. Now they build back into the POWER section for 2 min – Each musician playing more and more furiously.
  7. Nina improvises a field holler section that is also used in Get By.
  8. With Her piano sounding like an African Baliphone and the drummer getting out his emotions along with her. They build tension for almost 90 seconds before the song comes to an end.

Talib Kweli- Get By

The Queen of Interpretation, “She’ll take the wackest song, and make it beeeeettterr”  How does she encompass the whole epic of human feeling? She has a recipe. “And it goes a little something like this”

2 cups soul of the Black CHUCH! Yes, pronounced Chuch! Let that simmer in a base of Negro Sprituals. After about an hour add a 1 ½ cups of Blues feeling, tone and inflection. Next, two teaspoons of Bach like harmony. When it all starts to blend nicely, add 2 chopped cups of Jazz Improvisation,  (must be finely chopped). Now bring the whole pot to a boil, cause you know she serves it up hot. Garnish that joint with field Hollers, hand claps, and heaping teaspoon of political protest, then enjoy!

Nina Simone, thank you for embodying all the beauty of Black Music. You continue to be a benchmark for greatness. Myself and many others are  inspired by you daily.



Aaron McMickle

Aaron McMickle- DJ, Father, Musician, Music Lover. If you like how we connect the dots on this site, please leave a comment. Play the music presented here, and come back often. It's a life long journey

4 thoughts to “Nina Simone: Queen of Interpretation, Ruler of Improvisation”

  1. This is a very sophisticated analysis not only of Nina Simone, but also of many of the genres of black music over the last 200 years. Blues-jazz-spirituals-work songs and hollers-gospel-all influenced by the western classical tradition. Being able to hear the music was an important component. Music, like good preaching is meant to be heard and experienced; not just read and understood.

    1. Hey Dad,

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I am really working on writing in this format, and turning these ideas into lectures and musical performances. Thanks for the inspiration.


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