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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

And so it begins, with "Feeling Good"

Where else to start but the beginning?

Well, welcome to the Unfortified Castle. I'm Benjamin Kassel, and I'm the one running this joint. You can read more about me on this page, but here I'm going to get right into my first type of post: an addition to my Senior Year Soundtrack.

I talked with some friends and co-workers in the past couple weeks about running a playlist throughout my final year of undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley, in which I add one track a day. The track would have some basis in the events of the day or how I'm feeling. The biggest catch, though, is that I will not repeat any single performer throughout the playlist. This means, for example, that if I include a Foo Fighters track, I can't include anything by Nirvana or Them Crooked Vultures, or any track from Queens of the Stone Age's album Songs for the Deaf, because Dave Grohl performed on all of those. I included this caveat in an attempt to challenge myself in constructing this list, and also to help expand my musical horizons. I'm already recruiting some friends who are fans of music to which I listen less to give me some listening recommendations, and I'm sure I'll also discover more artists throughout the construction of this playlist as well.

Today, August 25, was the first day of instruction, and thus was the first day of my playlist. I woke up this morning thankful for the sort of new beginning today provided in Cal's return to in-person instruction. It felt like Berkeley and the university had sprung awake after a long slumber, and I was grateful to experience it — while following all necessary safety precautions, of course. With the new beginning today was, I realized no song was more fitting to open my Senior Year Soundtrack playlist than the ultimate soulful representation of new beginnings: Nina Simone's "Feeling Good," recorded in 1965 for her album I Put a Spell on You. Originally heard a year prior in the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint — The Smell of the Crowd, Nina's version transforms the operatic show tune into a master stroke of her signature jazz-leaning style.

I don't think any other artist, past, present, or future, can captivate an audience with an a capella opening like Nina did on "Feeling Good," especially considering its length of nearly 40 seconds. The tonal highs and lows in the opening evoke the image of the opening phrase, "birds flying high," as they soar, swoop, and float on the breeze that's "driftin' on by." All the while, amidst an intro with such massive emotional payoff in just a lone vocal, Nina gives the lines space. In the moments between lines, the previous words resonate in our ears and become even more impactful.

When the backing instruments, including a heavy dose of trombone (my instrument, so of course I mention it) finally do come in, they're at just the right dynamic level to be assertive, yet stay behind Simone's vocals. Arranger Hal Mooney, who also produced the recording, deserves credit here for the mixing job, which I also love because of how it keeps the piano in the front of the mix. So often in live and studio performances alike, a piano can be lost in a big band setting when the brass choir is playing alongside it, especially when the piano is in its higher, less forward register — not here, as only Nina's voice consistently sounds over the piano, and the brass seems to sit either alongside or slightly behind the keys throughout.

As the tune builds, the vocal track retains a sense of an authentic, one-take recording to me because of the continued small variations in Simone's delivery. Slight melismas, changes in timing, and ad libs at the end of lines can make all the difference in this regard, and they're something I don't hear nearly as much in contemporary tracks; it often sounds like modern producers simply cut and paste pre-chorus and chorus master takes in a quest for perfection over expression.

The ending is no-holds-barred, and I love how Nina approaches it by finally saying, "I know how I feel." With that simple change, she asserts complete control over the "new life" that awaits her — indeed, "freedom is [hers]." When the ending section does come shortly afterward, the introduction of new chords foretells a change in delivery... and what a change it is. The rapturous scat-singing is a cathartic release of joy. Nina had said throughout the song that she was feeling good, but now the listener truly believes her as she recites the title one last time before the track fades out.

"Feeling Good" is a song I've known for a while, but only began to truly appreciate in the past couple years along with the rest of Nina Simone's catalog. It's also a track with a deep history as a hip-hop sample; my favorite repurposing of it is by Kanye West and Jay-Z for "New Day," from their collaborative album Watch the Throne, a masterpiece of its own genre.

As I finish writing this article at nighttime, I have a strong idea of what tomorrow's song may be, but I won't give that away here. You'll have to come back and read the next Senior Soundtrack post. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this first entry; much more to come down the line.


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