Nina Simone – The Montreux Years – 2 CD Set
Presently, this is the first of 2-live Montreux Years CDs by BMG of rare & previously unreleased performances by Nina Simone & Etta James. Both are scheduled for release either May 28th or June 11th. Two dates were announced. The performances have been remastered & sound pristine.
The first Nina Simone: The Montreux Years documents 5 concerts in Switzerland (1968-1990). Simone’s multi-faceted & radical story is truly naked & at times with some tension. Nina was a good performer, great pianist & singer but had issues & wasn’t shy about expressing them even to an audience.
CD 1 opens with striking piano & segues into a compelling showcase on “Backlash Blues.” Varied in her approach, her light touch on the piano spills finesse liberally over “I Wish I Knew How It Would Be To be Free.” A classically trained pianist, Nina never disappoints. The entire live performance is excellent though there are times where Nina is awkward. Her acrid approach doesn’t always apply well to certain emotional songs (“To Love Somebody,” a Bee Gees song).
Though Nina’s always outspoken about her Blackness, apparently, Nina respectfully covers many classic songs composed by Caucasian writers (Jacques Brel, the Gershwin’s, Adolph Green & Betty Comden, the Bee Gees, Billy Mure, the “Hair” composers Rado, Ragni & McDermott). Proof that even in Nina’s world a good song is a good song.
“Little Girl Blue,” (Parts 1 & 2)” reconstructed with Nina’s performance verve (a classic Rodgers & Hart song), she embellishes it with class & emotional strength. On “Don’t Smoke In Bed,” however, Nina’s vocal is not at her best, but her piano still sparkles. Nina covers Janis Ian’s “Stars,” quite lovely.
While not as poignant as Billie Holiday on “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” Nina’s approach with her piano recreates this Harry Woods classic with smoky-dive excellence. To my ears, the best cut on this CD is the exciting, intensely percussive cut of Nina’s self-penned “African Mailman.” A great interlude between vocals. Many songs excite despite blemishes in quality. Her cover of Vincent Ford’s “No Woman, No Cry,” made famous by Bob Marley is comfortable in Nina’s voice. All these songs never aged.
Nina didn’t have a naturally melodic voice. She had an unmistakable style paired with her superb piano that was used to its optimum. She was difficult to like for some because she was a bit astringent in character. It made it hard to appreciate her obvious talents. There are sad moments when I thought Nina sounded like a person who may have had low self-esteem mixed dangerously with obnoxiousness (used as a defense). This kept her at a distance. Nina was a good person…many knew it. CD 1 = 1 hour & 18 minutes.
CD 2 recorded at Casino Kursaal in 1968 is filled with familiar covers. More rugged. Not as smooth in tonality as later performances (CD 1). Nina was never a Peggy Lee, Anita O’Day, or Ella Fitzgerald. Some numbers are “wrong songs” for Nina – The Bee Gees 60s pop song “To Love Somebody” is one. No life. Yet, by “The House of the Rising Sun,” Nina’s voice is perfect. However, the arrangement suffers. Instrumentally, it’s all played by competent musicians but this isn’t a song that should be played upbeat.
Another good dual song “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life,” is from the musical “Hair,” — but the performance gets away from Nina. Hippie-oriented Broadway songs, not a Nina forte. CD 2 (1 hour 13 minutes).
Finally, criticism: the CD package interior is ambitious & attractively designed. But the front cover (as is Etta James’) is not up to jazz standards. This is a cartoonish psychedelic hodgepodge. Who signed off on this? And Nina’s B&W image with a blue line-drawn drawn crown?
Produced by Nick Bonard, Fraser Kennedy & Thierry Amsallem. The 2-CD set is available at Amazon & Rough Trade NYC. Website: https://www.ninasimone.com/
B&W photograph of Nina Simone courtesy of Jack Robinson/Getty Images