Recently I had a chance to review a CD that presented itself as a “remixing or re-imagining” of the music of Nina Simone, through the eyes (and the very capable soundboard mixers) of a wide variety of producers. While I enjoyed the idea of the entire experience, I found myself with a lingering sense the actual CD itself just didn’t do anything for me.
Finally beginning to write this review of the newly released DVD Nina Simone — Live at Montreux 1976, I now know what was bothering me about my experience with the above mentioned CD. The only person that should mess with Nina is Nina herself.
During his or her lifetime, an artist has the right and privilege to interpret and perform his or her material in any way they choose. Nina Simone, especially after the first frantic wave of success, is a very strong example of an artist that did just that. In fact, not only did she choose to reinterpret her songs, but also how she allowed the public to see the artist that performed the songs.
For example, throughout the three different periods of her performing life preserved and presented on this particular DVD, there is a uniquely different Nina Simone on stage. Of course, in the strictest sense of the word, the woman playing piano and singing her songs of desperation and desire are comprised of the same bits, bones, and brain — but life experiences that she’s gone through have clearly changed her.
All three versions of Nina, though, would not have approved of her songs and lyrics being turned into something so innocuous as a dance/trance album. She would have stared defiantly at anyone who had dared suggest such a thing, and then dryly remarked they weren’t even fit to listen to her music much less suggest altering it.
That defiant sense of self and of self-worth is what I found captivating about this woman. Small wonder, then, that I found myself as equally captivated by this DVD as I was mystified by the need to even create that other CD.
The longest performance presented on this DVD is from the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival. From the moment she is announced and finds her way to the stage and her piano, there is little doubt she is having second thoughts about being there at all. It seems she has no love of the music festival, and even less respect for those that come to hear music in such an environment.
Refusing to even sit until the audience stops clapping and respects that she is about to begin her performance, she takes command of everything. Okay, everything except a microphone that occasionally refuses to cooperate, but that is beside the point.
Eventually, even that falls into place.
Once she begins playing — wow. I’m not sure that I can think of another woman that was so able to convey the darker yearnings and hungers that resided either in her belly, her heart, or her soul. Armed with a brutally delicate touch at the piano and a voice that seems made of equal parts temptation and damnation, she is amazing.
And yet, throughout, she seems haunted by something that appears to be self-doubt. Whenever a song would end, you see, she would instantly stand up and stare into the crowd, as if defying them to deny how immediate and real the song was.
It was as if she were afraid that she was all alone and that nobody else was able to see the broad sweeping strokes she was making on the canvas of her performance — and was angry with herself for being mortal enough to even care.
More than once she would declare that the crowd wasn’t worthy of hearing the music that she was doing then. Hell, they probably weren’t, as I know that I’m not worthy of it these decades after the performance.
“Backlash Blues,” for instance, grabbed ahold of my throat and just choked me into submission with its visceral beauty. I love every minute of that song, despite it making me feel so damned lonely and angry for all the injustice that inspired it.
It makes me regret that our world is not as good as it should be.
The rest of the DVD contains two songs from a 1987 performance and four songs from one in 1990. Older, less physically vibrant than the Nina from 1976, the voice and the songs are just as strong as ever.
When Nina sings “Four Women / Mississippi Goddam,” I just about cried in acknowledgment of the fierce pride that was still evident in her voice. When I sit back and realize that these four final songs on this DVD were recorded just three years before Simone passed away… I can only hope that my soul still runs that deep near the end of my own life.
Hell, I hope it just gets to 1/10th the depth of Nina’s, really.
At the end of it all, I have no hesitation at all about recommending this DVD to anyone and anybody who loves music, especially blues, jazz, or soul. Deep, dark, and inviting, the music of Nina Simone is only enhanced by seeing the fierceness of the woman on stage.
I am grateful for being given the chance to review this.