Feeling Good (Mama Alto)
Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio
November 28 – December 1
Dr Nina Simone was one of the most important and unique voices in music history, while gender transcendent cabaret diva jazz singer Mama Alto is a charismatic performer with a voice is to die for; in combination they make Wonderland Festival’s “Feeling Good” a match made in cabaret heaven.
The dip into Nina Simone’s vast songbook is more than just a stunning tribute to the High Priestess of Soul who refused to be pigeonholed; the hour long show is a charming experience of light-hearted banter and exquisite music, with accompaniment coming courtesy of pianist extraordinaire Miss Chief. In true cabaret style, Mama Alto gives us unscripted between-song shares of thoughtful unscripted stories of Simone’s glorious career, strugglesome life of marginalisation and iconic music.
Songs, meanwhile, are well-chosen to connect the personal and political of the peerless vocal stylist Simone’s lived experiences. From the enigmatically-styled but still so-soulful ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ to the light and playful ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’, the song that introduced Simone to a new audience upon its feature in that perfume commercial, we are also charted through the songstress’ intricate musical signatures. Mama Alto’s easily adapts to the genre fluidity that characterises Simone’s repertoire, sprying us along for the anthemic ride of the civil rights song, ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free’, for example.
From the hauntingly elegant, enduring ballad ‘Wild is the Wind’ early number, it is clear that Mama Alto respects the precision of her vocal instrument and shows remarkable control of it, holding a note like nobody’s business. Astonishing vocal gestures add texture, magnifying the emotional depth and meaning of songs. In the heartbreaking ‘The Other Woman’ she pays great attention to the musical expression of emotions, filling the audience with melancholy in her tender and poignant realisation and trembling deliver yof its lyrical devastation. Indeed, there is captivating heart and soul evident in every number, in fact, every note and word she sings. And her technique is incredible, meaning that she can take us from silky sounds to tremulous musical exclamations with ease.
Just as Miss Chief’s musicology reflects Simone’s essential meeting of jazz and classic components, Mama Alto gives us an astounding tribute to Simone’s vocal nuances and flavours in an always-engaging performance. While possibly Simone’s best-loved song, the titular ‘Feeling Good’ makes for a memorable encore, ‘Sinnerman’ is the show’s standout number, not just in its representation of Simone’s complex relationships with family and religion, but its thrilling vocal unleash of thematic intensity (the song tells of a sinner’s futile attempt to seek salvation on judgement day).
As I know from experience, you will always remember the first time you become aware of the commanding musical presence that is Mama Alto. The consummate musical storyteller’s shows should not be missed. In fact, they need to be discovered as soon as possible, because the act of doing will fill you with regret at having missed her previous Brisbane visits. As “Feeling Good’ signals, the gifted vocalist’s shows come with guaranteed passion, emotional honesty and strength of technique that make them sublime shares of the human experience.