Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Nina Simone: “The Montreux Years” (2021) CD Review

I recently re-watched Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, a movie that I love. Just before the end of that film, Jesse and Celine talk about Nina Simone, with Celine (Julie Delpy) describing a concert performance, and even giving a fine impression of what she had witnessed. It’s a wonderful moment in an excellent film. The song that plays during that scene, “Just In Time,” is included on the new two-disc set The Montreux Years, which features live recordings from the Montreux Jazz Festival from each of the years Nina Simone performed there –1968, 1976, 1981, 1987 and 1990. There is only one track from each of the two 1980s shows, with the first disc focusing on the 1976 and 1990 concerts. But we do get the 1968 set in its entirety. There is a whole lot of great music on these two discs, and it comes in a seriously cool package, presented as a small hardcover book with photos and a piece written by Stevie Chick.

Disc One

The first disc contains tracks recorded at Casino Montreux between 1976 and 1990. It opens with a strong instrumental rendition of “Someone To Watch Over Me” from 1987, this piano solo being the only track from that concert. That is followed by “Backlash Blues,” from July 3, 1976. And even before she sings, Nina Simone is captivating and alluring, as she introduces the song: “You didn’t forget me. I didn’t expect you to. I went home, you see. All those songs you heard all those years, I meant them from the deepest part of my heart.” And then when she starts to sing, oh my god, she is fantastic. And she speaks at moments during the song as well, but those moments don’t feel like breaks, but rather like inherent parts of the piece. She is just so good at this. She can hold you rapt with a note, with a word, sung or spoken, makes no difference. “Backlash Blues” features lyrics written by Langston Hughes, and toward the end she speaks about him. That’s followed by another song from that same concert, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” which begins with some wonderful work on piano. In fact, it’s more than a minute before Nina Simone begins to sing. And when she does, she delivers another powerful and excellent performance. On this track, she mentions Richard Bach’s popular book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull: “Jonathan Livingston Seagull ain’t got nothing on me.”  This is a performance that just gets better and better as she goes.

We then go to her concert from July 13, 1990 for “See-Line Woman,” another wonderful performance. This track is all about vocals and percussion, with the audience joining on the percussion, clapping along enthusiastically. It must have been something to see Nina Simone in concert. Then we return to the 1976 show for “Little Girl Blue,” which includes a nice spoken introduction, in which she says she hadn’t been there since 1968. This is the song with which she opened that concert, and she begins it – as she does on her album version – with a bit of “Good King Wenceslas.” She gives a gorgeous and moving vocal performance, supporting herself with some wonderful work on piano. That’s followed by another song from her first album, “Don’t Smoke In Bed,” this recording coming from that 1990 show, where again she supports her vocals on piano.  This is another passionate vocal performance, with some powerful work on piano.

This disc then takes us back to 1976 for “Stars,” which has a delicate sound at the beginning. Nina Simone draws us in, seemingly without effort, and it is something to hear this incredible woman sounding almost fragile and weary. Halfway through, her voice becomes almost a whisper, and she pulls us even closer. “You never could believe they really loved you/Never.” This song was written by Janis Ian, and as the song swells toward the end, Nina Simone mentions Janis Ian, as well as Janis Joplin and Billie Holiday. This first disc then switches back to the show from July 1990 for “What A Little Moonlight Can Do,” a track with a much more cheerful vibe. That is followed by “African Mailman,” the final tune from her July 3, 1976 performance. This is an exciting and even intense instrumental number, which includes a couple of drum solos. At one point, approximately four minutes in, the audience reacts to something. In the footage of this performance, it seems that Nina winks and smiles at someone in the audience, perhaps in response to something the person shouted. By the way, in that video you can also watch her dance her way across the stage during the drum solo.

Most of the rest of the first disc is from the 1990 show, beginning with “Four Women.” In the introduction, she mentions Nelson Mandela, who had finally been freed earlier that year. She then adds, “They thought that I was not political anymore, that was a mistake to think that.” Then, as she begins a really nice rendition of “No Woman No Cry,” she urges the crowd to sing along with her: “In honor of Bob Marley, I want you to sing it with me, it’s my last song.” Though from the set lists I’ve found, it looks like she decided to perform a couple more songs after this one, both of which are on this disc. She seems to really pull everyone together with this song, creating an uplifting bond among all who were in attendance. Nina Simone introduces the band at the beginning of “Liberian Calypso.” She stops the song a couple of times to get the audience to sing along with her, and once she has them doing exactly what she wants, she announces they’re going to start the song. The crowd loves it, laughing and singing. This is a fun track. That’s followed by the beautiful “No Me Quitte Pas,” the song with which she closed her show on July 13, 1990.

Then we go to the show Nina Simone performed on July 19, 1981 for “Montreux Blues,” a song that Nina Simone seems to improvise, singing about how the festival has been happening for fifteen years. She asks the crowd, “Don’t you love it?” And before the end she asks the crowd to support her and buy her albums. This is the only track from the 1981 concert. The disc then concludes with “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” the first song in the encore from the 1990 show. The crowd gets totally excited when she starts it, and claps along. This is another song she included on her first album. It’s a delightful and catchy recording, and I especially dig that piano lead in the middle.

Disc Two

The second disc contains the set that Nina Simone performed on June 16, 1968. This recording has been released on various albums in the past, including on a double album titled Live In Europe, but as far as I can tell, none of the previous releases have included the full set. A lot of the releases are just single albums, and even Live In Europe is missing the final song, and also doesn’t have all the song titles listed properly. For this show, Nina Simone is backed by Buck Clarke on drums, Henry Young on guitar, Gene Taylor on double bass, and Sam Waymon on organ and percussion. This disc begins with Nina Simone being introduced, this brief introduction getting its own track. Then the band gets right to it with a fast-paced and exciting number, “Go To Hell” (which is labeled as “Devil’s Workshop” on the Live In Europe release). Nina Simone sounds so damn cool here. At the end, she sings “Some say that hell is below us/But I say it’s right by my side/You see evil in the morning, evil in the evening, all the time/You know damn well, we all must be in hell.” It sometimes feels that way, certainly, but with Nina Simone singing, hell sounds all right by me. Then we get “Just In Time,” the song that plays at the end of Before Sunset. (the album that Jesse puts on Celine’s CD player is The Tomato Collection, for those who are curious). Nina Simone is adorable on this song, at times having the audience laughing. And her piano playing is so good. How can anyone help but completely fall in love with her here? That instrumental section is delightful.

From the moment Nina begins “When I Was A Young Girl,” she has the audience in her hands. “Right out of the ale house and into the jailhouse/Right out of the barroom and down to my grave.” And when she sings “I’m bound to die, I’m bound to die, I’m bound to die,” I imagine everyone at that venue must have been just completely under her spell. What a tremendous vocal performance. This is a seriously powerful track. That’s followed by “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” Nina Simone was the first artist to record this song, including it on her 1964 album Broadway – Blues – Ballads, though it was The Animals’ version that I heard first. I thought The Animals couldn’t be topped, that is until I heard Nina Simone. And here she delivers a fantastic rendition. She brings all sorts of layers to this song that are missing from basically all other versions I’ve heard. She then goes straight into “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” and this version is even more engrossing than the one of the first disc. This is an excellent, magical, powerful performance.

Nina Simone introduces the band at the beginning of her cover of The Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody,” this song delivered as a duet with Sam Waymon. Then as she begins “Backlash Blues,” Nina sings, “Is my mic still on? It’s on,” and even that is somehow endearing. How does she do it? She delivers another excellent rendition of this song that features lyrics by Langston Hughes. And toward the end of this version she sings about him. “Backlash Blues” leads right into “The House Of The Rising Sun,” another song that I first heard by The Animals. But Nina Simone performed it before The Animals recorded it, including it on her 1962 album At The Village Gate. Interestingly, the version here has something of a fast pace, the drum beat keeping it moving, and so it’s not as heart-rending as some other versions I’ve heard, including Nina Simone’s own earlier version. The band jams on it, and then toward the end Nina adds a cool vocal section. We then get another good rendition of “See-Line Woman,” this time with an introduction in which she teaches the audience the song. Again, it’s all about that rhythm. She follows that with a second Bee Gees song, “Please Read Me,” coming from the same Bee Gees LP as “To Love Somebody.”

Nina Simone performs a couple of songs from the musical Hair, which was still fairly new at the time, having moved to Broadway only two months before this show. On Live In Europe, this track is listed as “Life,” and it’s easy to see why. That’s how she introduces it. She begins with “Ain’t Got No,” which in the musical is paired with “I’m Black.” It’s interesting hearing this song without the backing vocals answering each line. That leads straight into “I Got Life,” in which she changes the line “I got my tits” to “I got my boobies,” which makes me smile. It seems like they’re wrapping up the song approximately halfway through the track, then the band continues to jam. A few minutes later, Nina Simone is back, singing “Is the mic still on? The mic is on, the mic is on. Is the mic on? Am I on? Am I on?” She then sings a few lines from “Ain’t Got No” and one from “I Got Life,” and then the band jams again. And, yeah, this jam sounds like 1968 all right! Very cool. That wraps up the main body of the set. The encore begins with “Gin House Blues,” and she encourages the band to jam a bit before she starts singing. This is a groovy, fun number. And toward the end we get another delicious jam. The album then concludes with “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” which begins sweetly. This song was not included on the Live In Europe release. This track has a kind of soothing and joyful vibe. This one also seems to finish approximately halfway through the track, and then the band starts to jam on it again, and soon Nina Simone is singing again.

CD Track List

CD One

  1. Someone To Watch Over Me (Intro)
  2. Backlash Blues
  3. I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free
  4. See-Line Woman
  5. Little Girl Blue
  6. Don’t Smoke In Bed
  7. Stars
  8. What A Little Moonlight Can Do
  9. African Mailman
  10. Four Women
  11. No Woman No Cry
  12. Liberian Calypso
  13. Ne Me Quitte Pas
  14. Montreux Blues
  15. My Baby Just Cares For Me

CD Two

  1. Intro
  2. Go To Hell
  3. Just In Time
  4. When I Was A Young Girl
  5. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
  6. Ne Me Quitte Pas
  7. To Love Somebody
  8. Backlash Blues
  9. The House Of The Rising Sun
  10. See-Line Woman
  11. Please Read Me
  12. Ain’t Got No, I Got Life
  13. Gin House Blues
  14. I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel To Be Free

The Montreux Years is scheduled to be released on June 25, 2021 through BMG.

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