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One Track Mind: Kellylee Evans, "I Loves You Porgy" (2010)

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By Nick DeRiso

Taking on Nina Simone, a singer of dusky persuasiveness, might be foolhardy enough. Remaking this song, a Top 20 pop hit off Simone's celebrated 1958 debut Little Girl Blue seemed like the worst idea of all.

But Canadian singer Kellylee Evans finds a new light, even if it's only a small sliver, within this dark tale from the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess.

Simone—a classically trained pianist born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina—fully explored a depth of pain, of humiliation and fear, only hinted at in readings of the DuBose Heyward/Ira Gershwin lyric by so many others.

To my ear, she matched the shattering fragility of Billie Holiday's once-definitive 1948 take, an inspiration undoubtedly for Simone, but then pushed the song to more emotionally challenging places.

It's a lot to live up to for any singer.

Evans starts on this new version (issued in October by the French label Plus Loin Music) by reaching down into the textured sadness of Simone's harrowing take, in particular early into the proceedings. But she doesn't stay there, and I'll admit some initial disappointment. After all, that was the bravery of Simone's account.

Simone had, it seemed, forever cured the central problem with the Gershwin play: Betraying its vintage, Porgy and Bess suffers moments of Amos 'n' Andy-style minstrelsy. In Simone's interpretation, however, “I Loves You Porgy" faced fully the horrors of separation and rape experienced by African-American women in the pre-Civil Rights era. The image of falling into a captor's “hot hands" still has this sharp, devastating power: “Don't let him take me; don't let him handle me—and drive me mad. ... He's going to handle me, and hold me. It's going to be like dying, Porgy."

But there is a kind of resigned optimism to be found in this song, too, and that's where Evans regains her footing. She throws her arms around the hope, ever so slim, of being saved—and she never lets go: “If you can keep me, I wanna stay here with you forever. I've got my man."

Evans has an ardently expressive voice, and she fully inhabits that line as the tune ends. A backing group fronted by guitarist Marvin Sewell (Cassandra Wilson, Jason Moran) provides note-perfect support, too—holding true to the familiar original music by George Gershwin, even while adding new shadings. The unit is rounded out by bassist Francois Moutin (Rudresh Mahanthappa) and drummer Andre Ceccarelli (Dee Dee Bridgewater).

They almost make you believe that things might work out in the end for Bess. No small feat.

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