Nina Simone

Nina Simone was an enigma.  She is often described as a jazz singer.  She wasn’t one of consequence.  Stack her next to an actual jazz singer and this becomes pretty clear.  She developed a reputation as an artist with moral integrity.  Yet that reputation wears thin when looking at how many misguided concessions to pop fads are littered all through her recording career.  Much is made of her bitter break from Euro-classical music early in life.  Denied entry to a conservatory (The Curtis Institute of Music) as a pianist, she turned to singing in lounges.  Little of her piano playing impresses on her own recordings, though it can be effective in accompaniment.  But when you hear her voice on a good recording, she definitely had something special.  Singing may not have been her desire, but it was her great talent.  Sometimes talents choose their medium, rather than the other way around.  She was often at her best when adding a rough blues or gospel or jazz inflection to burningly austere chamber pop songs.  She was sort of a gothic shadow cast from commercial pop.  It was the tone of her voice that embodied a palpable sense of anger that drove so much of it.  Close listening doesn’t reveal much clarity in her rhythmic phrasing, her control of vibrato, her pitch range, or even her use of melisma.  All that aside, she had the power to deliver songs as if saying, with a firm scowl, “I will sing this song and I will make you remember it.”  The single-minded resolve to put her own identity into her music is fiercely determined.  This makes the greatest impression on the material that resists that approach.  When she worked with jazzy orchestral backing, as was a prevailing style for a time during her long career, the resistance to her identity could be too much.  When she played straight blues or even militant soul and R&B, there was nothing really working against her identity to put up any challenge.  She reversed her formula and added formal pop technique to rougher electric soul and R&B, and it came across as a reflection of her limitations rather than her positive talent.

What follows is a long yet incomplete set of brief reviews of her albums.  This is limited to what I’ve heard, which does not include anything from her time with Colpix Records.  Continue reading “Nina Simone”

Nina Simone – Little Girl Blue

Little Girl Blue

Nina SimoneLittle Girl Blue Bethlehem BCP-6028 (1958)

Nina Simone’s debut.  Basically she’s making a Nat “King” Cole Trio album, and only occasionally doing that well.  There’s a sort of smokey vibe to it.  The atmosphere doesn’t quite carry the whole thing though.  There’s really excellent stuff, the vibrant, effortless buoyancy of “My Baby Just Cares for Me”–with Simone embracing the lightness of the song more than she would later in her career–the smooth, lonely grace of “I Loves You Porgy”–where her gently unobtrusive piano accompaniment suits her plaintive vocals–and the stark, harsh, painful solemnity of “Plain Gold Ring”–a tone she would later use many times over with success.  But there are also plenty of really, overextended flashy gimmicks that go beyond Simone’s range, particularly as a pianist (“Mood Indigo,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Good Bait”).  The pure instrumental cuts (“Central Park Blues,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone”) drag as rote exercises at best dressed up with touches of stodgy formalism.  It’s as if she tries to insert European classical training directly into a “jazz” setting with the expectation that the mere reference to it adds credibility.  But doing so just seems like pandering to the sorts of audiences who don’t really like “jazz” on its own terms and need reassurance that they are hearing somebody with “real” skills from a different–valid–style.  The poppier stuff (“My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “I Loves You Porgy”) crackles with more vibrancy and confidence.  Simone dives into it, steps out of herself, and treats the material as it deserves to be treated.

This album has more or less continuously remained in print since the 1950s, and is among Simone’s most well-known.  Yet Simone’s most fundamental approach to performance throughout the entirety of her entire career was all about stamping her own personality on her music, and there isn’t so much of that here, for better or worse.  Still, if you chalk up the weakest stuff as “filler” in an era when albums weren’t usually great from start to finish, this compares fairly well to other albums of the day.

Nina Simone – Silk & Soul

Silk & Soul

Nina SimoneSilk & Soul RCA Victor LSP 3837 (1967)

Nina Simone was an icon.  She was dubbed the “high priestess of soul” by her fans, but they did so long before she actually started performing “soul” music.  It was only in the late 1960s, a full decade into her professional career, that she made a foray into the genre.  Frankly, this was one of her least convincing styles.  She often came across as a huge stiff.  She used formalistic vibrato (“Consummation”) in place of guttural drive, and pre-soul R&B shouting (“It Be’s That Way Sometime”) when a more supple delivery seemed advisable.  In some ways, it is the mark of arrogance.  She’s a philistine when it comes to soul music, but her hubris pushes her onward into territory that is slightly outside her natural stylistic range.

“Soul” was an afro-american musical form that often used “masking”, a technique that concealed social or political messages behind music that seemed on the surface to be (only) about romance, or whatever.  The psychological issues of inferiority looming behind the technique are the sort of things Frantz Fanon wrote about in Black Skin, White Masks [Peau noire, masques blanc] (1952).  When Nina Simone started making “soul” music, she frequently did it without masking.  She sang soul songs that were directly about social and political issues–like her 1969 hit single “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”  The problem this presented is that it really isn’t possible to directly address any subject that really matters.  There is a need to engender meaning from oblique angles.  At least, this is what everyone in the structuralist or post-structuralist camp from Roland Barthes to Slavoj Žižek would say, in one form or another.  So while the militant social activist Simone did address the problem Fanon identified, she kind of missed another issue.  Even without the “white mask” problem, there is still no way to directly express something real without inscribing it on something else, another mask.  Her mid-1960s recordings that had a more traditional pop or Broadway sound gave her a mask on which she inscribed something else.  It is that something else that is often missing here.  We get Nina Simone singing soul, but not Nina Simone singing soul as a unique way to tell us something else. She stops short.

On “Love O’ Love” we have just her on piano, a setting closer to her earlier work, which works, and it is the best thing here.  In other places, “It Be’s That Way Sometime,” “Cherish,” “Some Say,” she’s out of sync with the backing band or the horns simply sound like dinner theater pop more than “authentic” soul or her vocals seem too flat and lacking texture that the greasy rock backing calls for.

Silk & Soul sounds more like a clinical, scientific experiment than the real deal.  Simone was clearly trying to stay relevant by catering to what she (or handlers) thought audiences wanted, rather than making the sort of music that compelled her and trying to bring audiences to that, whatever it was.  While not terrible, this is among Simone’s most forgettable albums of the 60s.