With the veritable flood of reissues of remastered albums from jazz musicians great and small in recent months, it seems time to ask if in fact all these albums deserve resurrection. After all, even the greatest of artists has a bad day every once in a while. Not every album is a classic. But then along comes an album from Naxos like Nina Simone’s 1958 gem for Bethlehem Records, Little Girl Blue. You have to concede that if you have to put up with a clunker or two to get a fresh copy of an unquestionable work of genius, it’s a small price to pay.
She begins the first tune on the album, “Mood Indigo,” with an impressive piano solo and follows with an inventive reading of the lyric that clearly indicates the riches in store on the rest of the disc. Her version of the signature Ellington song should have her name signed right next to it. Not only does she make it her own, she owns it. There are those jazz vocalists who can sing and play a little piano. Nina Simone doesn’t play a little piano. She had the chops to play with the best pianists around, and she shows it.
For good measure she includes three instrumental tracks on the album: “Good Bait,” an anthemic take on “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Carousel, and a swinging “Central Park Blues.” The three instrumentals are among the four longest pieces on the album. Despite the fact that they are taking up space on the original vinyl that could have been used for vocals, they are welcome additions. Her classical training and elegant style (she started on piano when she was four and went on to attend Julliard for two years of piano work) are evident in her playing, not only on these instrumentals but throughout the album.
Still, it is her singing that made her a household name, at least in households where great music was appreciated. She uses her rich evocative contralto to run the gamut from lament for love gone bad in “Don’t Smoke in Bed” and the heart rending plea of “I Loves You Porgy,” to the jumping “Love Me Or Leave Me.” There is a wink in her tinkling, joyful romp though “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” while her “Plain Gold Ring” feels at times like a native chant. Her arrangement of the title song, counterpointed with quotations from the famous carol “Good King Wenceslas,” is something special.
As long as reissues are going to get us albums like Little Girl Blue, all we can say is, keep them coming.