Arguably no instrument other than cello would be more perfect for a salute to legendary singer Nina Simone (it has that Simone sound); but put that cello in the hands of Sonia Wieder Atherton and there is no argument. She and her cello are nothing short of perfection. Her tribute to Simone, Little Girl Blue: From Nina Simone, features some of the most intensely passionate music you are likely to hear this year, indeed the kind of intense passion that defined Simone and her music.
As the cellist describes in the little booklet that accompanies the album, she “delved deep” into Simone’s music, “her repertory, her arrangements, her harmonic universe, and her story too.” It is as though she is channeling the singer: “This project is about offering her the voice of my cello… Perhaps if I abandon myself to her, she will take me to the secret links between her and the composers she loved above all else.” The album is an attempt to create a mystical union, an attempt that hits the mark. Close your eyes and Atherton’s cello embodies not one, but the many voices of the unique singer. It is a bravura performance worthy of the singer she honors.
Playing with pianist Bruno Fontaine and percussionist Laurent Kraif, Atherton runs through a 15-track program that highlights the range of Simone’s musical passions. And if she omits a classic tune or two, with the wealth she does offer, it would be absurd to complain.
The set includes four of Simone’s original compositions: “Fodder on My Wings,” Images,” “Come Ye” and “Return Home.” It adds jazz classics closely associated with Simone, tunes like Duke Ellington’s “Hey Buddy Bolden,” Oscar Brown, Jr.’s “Brown Baby,” and of course the tune that gives the album its title. There is the gospel flavored freedom anthem “I Wish I Knew It Would Feel to Be Free.” There are also nods to the singer’s classical interests with Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Black Swan,” an andante from the Rachmaninoff “Sonata in G minor,” and a Bach choral prelude by way of Brahms.
But it is not merely Atherton’s repertoire choices that make the album. She plumbs the depths of that repertoire with a skillful musicality, working magic with Fontaine and Kraif. They are a formidable trio and their work demands attention.