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Jazz Masters 58: Sings Nina
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Verve 314 529 867-2 (1996 US)

Review by Matt Kelland.
Tracks sorted by number (sort by session or by title)
 1 [3:19] I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl   Tim Brymn, Dally Small, Clarence Williams

 2 [2:40] Old Jim Crow   Jackie Alper, Nina Simone, Ron Vander Groef

 3 [7:02] Go Limp   Alex Comfort, Nina Simone

 4 [4:54] Four Women   Nina Simone

 5 [2:53] Images   Waring Cuney, Nina Simone unaccompanied vocal

 6 [3:37] Come Ye   Nina Simone

 7 [3:22] Be My Husband   Andy Stroud

 8 [2:48] Take Me to the Water   Traditional

 9 [2:50] I'm Going Back Home   Rudy Stevenson

 10 [2:55] Heaven Belongs To You   Traditional

 11 [6:02] Fodder in Her Wings   Nina Simone

 12 [5:24] If You Knew / Let It Be Me   Gilbert Becaud, Pierre Delanoe, Curtis Mann, Nina Simone (medley)

 13 [3:06] The Last Rose of Summer   Thomas Moore, Nina Simone

 14 [4:58] Mississippi Goddam   Nina Simone standard studio version

Liner Notes by Marc Weidenbaum, May 1996

On the best-loved version of the most famous song she has composed, "Mississippi Goddam," Nina Simone tells her Carnegie Hall audience between verses, "This is a show tune, but the show hasn't been written for it yet." She is only half joking. Simone's writing, for all its majesty, always has seemed incomplete. Rather, her original songs suggest themselves as scraps of something larger, perhaps several things larger -- a show, indeed, but also an autobiography, a treatise on gender, a political manifesto.

Perhaps scraps is not the best word. Simone's original songs leave no seams showing, no couplets to be rhymed, no bridges to be built. Synecdoche better describes her compositions, meaning the part that signifies the whole, like a fin for a shark or a top-ten single for a career. But such a scholastic term would surely scare off novice fans tickled by her cover of "My Baby Just Cares for Me," a recording whose recent appropriation by film and advertising testifies to Simone's continued appeal.

Yet, how else to describe the sense of greater context that halos all of Simone's songwriting? Isn't "Four Women," with its innovative modulation between characters, more dramatic than most full-length musical shows? Aren't her anthems, "Mississippi Goddam" and "Old Jim Crow," purposely tough acts to follow, their rousing choruses meant to dispatch the audience into the streets? Simone writes each composition as if it were the one she wants on her tombstone. "Sugar in My Bowl" is suggestion, seduction, and recuperation wrapped in one pop song.

Simone's songwriting is most remarkable for its breadth. She has constructed identities from the music and words of others, as did the generation of jazz vocalists preceding her, but she has also created varied personae in songs she has written, anticipating the autobiographical endeavors of rock's singer/songwriters. Her concert programs are patchworks sewn from gospel and pop, Broadway and blues. A Simone performance is as likely to be written by her as it is by someone else: She composes in every genre, as if the music business were some artistic decathlon and her songs must compete in each event.

The tunes heard here include gospel ("If You Pray Right [Heaven Belongs to You]") and pop ("Sugar in My Bowl"). Her political work ranges across the folk-music tradition; it can be as comic as Tom Paxton's ("Go Limp") or as resolute as Woody Guthrie's ("Mississippi Goddam"). She adapts texts widely, using the lyrics of a contemporary of Byron, Thomas Moore ("The Last Rose of Summer"), and of a figure of the Harlem renaissance, Waring Cuney ("Images").

And no matter what its context, each song carries the scent of autobiography. Her lyrics clearly relate to her public life: to matters of racial tension, social issues, and sexual politics. Furthermore, her songs illuminate her musical autobiography, the snatches of Bach and gospel from her childhood, the echo of the popular standards of her era, the folk-song agitprop of the civil rights movement.

She is famous for coming to composition by circumstance. As a single young woman supporting herself playing piano, she improvised -- for self-preservation, not out of a deep understanding of jazz -- to fill out arduous cocktail hours. As the civil rights movement drew her in, she found subject and audience for her unique voice. The alto that tunneled through "I Loves You, Porgy" and keened Ellingtonia had something of its own to say.

But songwriting has never been the primary focus of Simone's career, given her talents as pianist, arranger and, of course, singer of other composers' songs. Her own songs generally remain uncovered, though few among the new generation of women in rock and soul haven't claimed Simone's influence. This neglect must be painful for a woman who has treated the songs of others with such engagement.

In retrospect, Simone's considerable catalog -- in her autobiography more than forty albums are listed, omitting gray-market titles -- effects a false impression of her appreciation of her own songwriting. It might seem that she thinks it is secondary to her work interpreting others' songs: No release on the Philips label, the core of Verve's Simone holdings, features more than three Simone originals. Many of the Philips-era originals were drawn from the concert she gave in the spring of 1964 in New York City, spread over a handful of albums. The implication is clear: Live, Simone called the tunes, her own well represented on the program. But record companies chose not to focus on her compositions. It wouldn't be the only disservice done her by the music industry.

Verve's catalog does not fully represent Simone's writing. There are dozens of other songs ("To Be Young, Gifted and Black," "Backlash Blues," and "I Sing Just to Know I'm Alive" foremost among those missing here). But chosen instead for this compilation are songs closely associated with Simone that she did not write: a traditional gospel ("Take Me to the Water"); one by Rudy Stevenson, a longtime member of Simone's band who, like her, lives in self-exile in Europe ("I'm Going Back Home"); and a blues by her ex-husband, Andy Stroud ("Be My Husband"), credited on some albums to Simone. She has been fond of medleys since her cocktail-piano days, working her own songs into others and vice versa. Here, Simone's "If You Knew" melds with "Let It Be Me" by Gilbert Becaud, Pierre Delance and Curtis Mann. On other occasions, she has intertwined "If You Knew" with Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill's "Mr. Smith."

This "Mississippi Goddam," augmented by guitarist Arthur Adams' sly picking, was taped two decades after Simone's momentous Carnegie Hall concerts (that "Goddam" is on Simone's Verve Jazz Masters 17) in a bar and grill on the West Coast. There is a certain poignancy to the fact that the woman who mixed gospel tunes and civil rights compositions on the world concert stage would find her own contributions to protest song converted into the music of cabaret. This turn of events does not diminish the strength of Simone's songwriting. Quite the contrary, it cements a sense that Simone's fondest admirers quietly appreciate: that Nina sings Nina for fear no one else will.