The sum of Nina Simone’s Bethlehem Sessions is powerful.
Mood Indigo, the 60th anniversary release of Nina Simone’s first recordings, reminds us that the late singer is an ever-present artist. Perhaps because she came to be seen not only a musician but also a figure in the civil rights movement, her presence transcends categorization. Later this year, Simone will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, despite being trained in classical music and cutting her teeth as a jazz singer. What we know for certain is that we need her now more than ever.
From the beginning, Simone was about absolute conviction in her art. Though she changed her name for commercial reasons (having been born Eunice Waymon in 1933), most of her career flew in the face of convention. “Mississippi Goddam,” “Backlash Blues” and “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” were anthems against prejudice that allied her creatively with Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry. By the late ‘60s, her politics were more Malcolm that they were King, as she advocated for violent revolution if necessary. She would leave the United States for long stretches after refusing to pay taxes in support of the Vietnam War.
Her first recordings in 1958 demonstrate her musical conviction but also the degree to which she started as a fully-formed performer with a distinctive jazz style that, nevertheless, was not confined to jazz. Recorded for Bethlehem Records, her first session consisted of 14 tunes, 11 of which were released as Little Girl Blue. The first hit song, her version of Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy,” was a dead-slow ballad learned from a Billie Holiday record: just her piano accompaniment, Tootie Heath on drums, Jimmy Bond on acoustic bass and a vocal delivered with utter control, rounded tone and—after a brief, delicately filigreed piano solo—an overflowing sense of pent-up emotion.
Mood Indigo follows the sequence in which these recordings were released as singles. “Love Me or Leave Me” backs “Porgy,” and it swings mightily at mid-tempo but famously contains a piano improvisation that begins as jazz and then morphs into a Simone classic: a Bach-like two-part invention that puts a baroque creation over the swing, leading back to a jazz feeling, all without affection. Simone spent the summer of 1950 attending the Juilliard School studying classical music and preparing an audition to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Simone was certain her subsequent rejection was a result of her race, and her activism fed into her art from that point forward.
Each track from this early session shows how clear Simone’s voice already was. “Little Girl Blue,” a Rodgers and Hart song from the musical Jumbo, gets a brilliant addition, as Simone weaves the carol “Good King Wenceslas” into her accompaniment that adds new dimension to the song. Her version of Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” is not taken as a ballad but more up-tempo, with Heath swinging on his brushes as Simone phrases the melody like a drummer herself. Her piano solo is boisterous, and she emerges from it playing a hip, rolling seven-note figure that Ellington never realized.
The two other big singles from this early effort are “Plain Gold Ring” and “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” The latter would end up as Simone’s last “hit” when it was used in a British Chanel commercial in 1987 and revived interest in the singer. Somewhat ironically, after a late career that was not particularly focused on Simone’s “jazz” style, “My Baby” is a perfect example of how her style and savvy was a shot in the arm for jazz. Decades before artists like Cassandra Wilson or Norah Jones were finding ways to update the meaning of “swing” or to find natural, organic ways of melding jazz with popular styles without simply watering down the creativity, Simone was on the case. The catchy, bouncing swing piano figure of “My Baby,” finds a thrilling middle ground. Punctuating her improvisation with a two-chord shout that sounds like the hook from “Beyond the Sea” is as catchy as any hip-hop vocal. The combination of on-the-beat rhythmic punch and hip, behind-the-beat drag on the vocal performance is Billie Holiday for a new age. Simone was part of the tradition and ahead of her time, like all the greats in this music.
“Plain Gold Ring” would develop a cult of interest, and it would be covered by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and others. A mournful melody about pining for a married man, underpinned by an unvarying blues bassline and almost martial drums, the song is almost painfully simple. The A section bobs over a single chord, and then the song lifts to the subdominant on the bridge. This is the performance that seems to point more clearly to the future of Simone’s career, with a focus on the lyrics, on storytelling, on the sincerity and earnestness of a message being more important than the sheer propulsion of the music.
The deeper cuts have subtler treasures. “He Needs Me” is a rarely-heard ballad with cutting lyrics sung once through, no frills. “For All We Know” doesn’t use the rhythm section, setting Simone’s notably formal vocal atop a piano accompaniment that is anthemic rather than jazzy. “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” is played with a beautiful flow and unusual harmonies, also without much sense of swing. Maybe best of these is “Don’t Smoke in Bed,” another piano/voice piece, but one that gives Simone the chance to combine her jazz vocal delivery with piano chops that hint at Chopin rather than Ellington. On the other hand, Simone delivers some hip instrumental jazz with “Central Park Blues,” sounding like a subtler version of Mose Allison—until she tiptoes into a whispered section that goes from Bach and back to the blues. The polyrhythmic groove on the trio workout “African Mailman” suggests yet another direction in which Simone could be comfortable.
The sum of Nina Simone’s Bethlehem Sessions is powerful but perhaps peculiar. This was the first flowering of a unique and gigantic talent, and a sometimes problematic one. We can hear it as a snapshot of what she loved, what she was influenced by, and what she aspired to in 1958. Her classical and political aspirations sit side by side with her reverence for a jazz tradition that she would go on to significantly abandon. A few caveats about quality and coherence, however, can’t change the fact that each track on The Complete Bethlehem Singles is a classic, the first sighting of a hugely influential artist whose music continues to haunt listeners 60 years after it was first recorded.