Love her? Then leave her.
Nina Simone was, by all accounts, a musical pioneer. Her seamless integration of classical music into jazz, show tunes, blues, gospel, and soul is, in it’s own, monumental. Pair that with her unmistakable voice- by her own account was sometimes like coffee with cream, and sometimes like gravel, and she is one of the most important figures in American music. The genius, moving documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? tells Nina’s story mainly through her own words, and to accompany it is Nina Revisited… A Tribute To Nina Simone. The album compiles an A-list roster of guests to pay tribute to the late Miss Simone.
Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Mary J. Blige, Common & Lalah Hathaway, and Nina’s daughter Lisa all contributed, but Ms Lauryn Hill is the real draw of this album. She felt strongly enough about Nina and the project to contribute 6 new recordings (the largest volume of studio recordings she has released at one time since her debut album was released 17 years ago). Quite frankly, Hill not only makes the project but also saves it from being a monotone snooze-fest.
The thing that made Nina so magical outside of her unique voice, was her ability to seamlessly weave in and out of musical genres. This tribute features mainly interpretations of her songs, but they all ended up swirling around smooth jazz/neo-soul and the influence of the incredible Robert Glasper, who serves as a producer on the project. There’s nothing wrong with Glasper. His unmistakable keys, contributions to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, and own Black Radio albums are nothing short of brilliant. However, his involvement with this project is extremely disappointing. His influence causes these songs to end up feeling more like a Glasper album, which is sonically narrow, especially compared to that of a musical virtuoso like Nina.
Take Mary J Blige’s contribution of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” On its own it’s a great reading, mirroring her vocal delivery on 2005’s “Father In Me,” but mixed in with the rest of the album it becomes just another monotone smooth jazz arrangement. Newcomer Grace (who recently delivered a mesmerizingly haunting cover of “You Don’t Own Me”), can’t capture the magic of “Love Me Or Leave Me,” because it lacks the walking bass and classical breakdown that made Nina’s reading so unique and attractive. Common delivers poignant verses while Lalah Hathaway coos away on the re-imagined “We Are Young Gifted & Black.” Placed on a Glasper album it would be a standout, but here, once again it simply sinks in with the rest.
Alice Smith takes on “I Put A Spell on You,” but her feeble and disjointed arrangement hasn’t got shit on the spell-binding reading Annie Lennox unleashed last year. Usher shouldn’t have even been allowed to participate with his deflated attempt at “My Baby Just Cares For Me” (surprisingly produced by the usually-on-point Salaam Remi), nor should Gregory Porter. Arguably, Nina’s “Sinnerman” is not only her greatest recording but one of the greatest recordings of all time. She unleashes a religious experience that can shake a listener’s soul over and over, effortlessly. Porter’s reading sounds more like glorified elevator music from a department store.
In stark contrast is Ms Lauryn Hill, the project’s savior, who also produced all of her contributions. She delivers stellar rendition after stellar rendition, and is vocally impassioned on each cut she tackles. Her deliveries of “Black Is The Color of My True Love’s Hair” and “Ne me quitte pas” are so beautiful, searing, and powerful they’re tear-inducing. Hill sounds as if she’s waited her entire life to sing these songs, and sings them as if Nina is meticulously observing her, note for note. She reads “Feeling Good” in a straight reading that closely mirrors Nina’s, while she adds politically-charged rapid-fire rap verses around a clever sample of “I’ve Got Life” that would make the activist in Nina proud. The parallels that link Simone and Hill, including extensive hiatuses and erratic behavior, as well as outspokenness in all the right ways, make Hill’s presence here feel ever so appropriate, and even necessary.
Nina’s daughter Lisa does her mother right on a respectable and notably bluesy reading of “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl.” The only other artist who should be commended for their work here is the incredible Jazmine Sullivan. Her take on “Baltimore” may not divert heavily from Nina’s, but it’s captivating, soulful, authentic, and very appropriate based on the social climate. The album closes with Nina herself performing “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free.” Hearing her voice and arrangement only further displays the distance many of these songs have from the singer’s musicality.
Nina was a versatile musician, and these covers do not properly represent that. This is the antithesis of Nina’s musical range. There’s nothing wrong with interpreting a Nina song in a jazz or neo-soul-based manner, but damn near all of them? The irony is that Nina has always been mis-classified in record stores and mis-identified in conversation as simply a jazz singer, and this is probably the only body of work with Nina’s name attached to it that by enlarge fits that mis-classification.