Skins, the seventh album from guitarist/singer/composer Nana Simopoulos, is an exotic mélange that fuses elements of jazz and world music with inspired poetry. Working with a changing cast of talented musicians—ranging from the likes of jazz saxophonist Dave Liebman and bassist Mary Ann McSweeney to sarangi master Ustad Sultan Khan—she glides through an enchanting program of eight original compositions.
Her voice, elegantly angelic in the service of lyrics, is at times mystical, at other times haunting, or both. “Merely to Know,” for example, takes her composition, “Til We Meet Again” and adds these lyrics from a 12th century Japanese poem by Kojiju, a Buddhist nun: “Merely to know the flawless moon/Dwells pure and clear/Inside the human heart/Is finding that the darkened night/Will vanish/Under clearing skies.” Royal Hartigan on drums and Solis Barki’s percussion provide a strong foundation for Simopoulos’s guitar and vocals as well as Liebman’s intense sax.
And this is but one example. The evocative “Let the Fire Burn Me” is based on a translation from Rumi, as is “Inside.” This latter one features Liebman on the wood flute. “For No Reason,” the romp that opens the set and which reminds me of the classic “Carravan,” is based on a translation of a poem by Hafiz. “The Pathway” is based on the work of a 12th century Sufi, Mahsati Ganjavi, and with a nod to the Western Hemisphere there is “Owl Woman” with lyrics inspired by her song, “How Shall I Begin My Song?”
“Anases,” a lyrical gem, is a song written, she tells us on the album notes, as a gift for her wife on her birthday. It is a ballad, both lush and simple, written and sung in Greek. Simopoulos conveniently provides an English translation as she does with all the album’s lyrics. “You are my sun,” she translates, “Come/Let me drink in your light.” It is a melody filled with magic punctuated by some elegant sax work from Dimitri Vassilakis.
Call it jazz. Call it world music. Call it fusion. Better still, call Nana Simopoulos’s Skins wonderful listening.