The old Nina Simone, the one without whom Laura Nyro would not have been possible, was terrific at dynamics. No one could build to a more dramatic crescendo, or squeeze out a more poignant decrescendo, or simply hold a rest to stronger effect. And dynamics was just one facet of Nina’s overall theatricality. Her classic numbers – like “Mississippi Goddam,” “I Loves You Porgy,” “Irate Jenny” or “Ne Quitte Pas” – were nearly all dramatic performances in the grand manner, replete with whispers and growls and acting sometimes well past the hilt.
I saw Nina do a concert a couple of weeks ago and she is acting still, but confining herself now to only one role: the High Priestess of Soul. To this part she brings the most elegant elocution this side of John Gielgud, a set of dances that look like Egyptian statuary in motion, a series of popular songs that have little or nothing to do with her High Priestess stance, and such an overwhelming authority that she still brings the whole thing off.
Unfortunately, neither Nina’s grande dame intensity nor her old musical bravado find their way onto her new album, Here Comes the Sun. Nina sounds weary, the arrangements sound like muzak and what’s left is a bunch of fair-to-middlin’ cover versions of songs that long ago hit their saturation points. But then, except on her very first LPs, Nina has seldom found more than two or three really good songs to put on each album.
The theme of this particular record is apparently pop-inspirational, that is, inspirational from several angles, your down-and-out-but-still-fighting angle (“Mr. Bojangles,” “My Way”), your relief-is-on-the-way-angle (“O-o-h Child,” “Here Comes the Sun,” “New World Coming,” “Angel of the Morning”) and your plain gospel angle (“How Long Must I Wander”).
Nina starts “Here Comes the Sun” with shaky pitch and proceeds to sing around the melody, allowing the song to lose its drive. The one short piano break (Nina laying down her patented staccato pings on the upper half of the keyboard) is the only spot on the whole record where we really hear a statement from this virtuoso pianist. Nina does “Just Like a Woman” (the only noninspirational cut on the album), not a wise choice perhaps, because Roberta Flack has done it and one realizes, listening to the two similar versions, that Nina’s pipes have deteriorated fast in recent years and that she can no longer pull off the quiet piano/bass/drum combo approach. Then comes Nina’s “O-o-h Child,” which isn’t up to the Five Stairsteps’ version vervewise.
Which brings us to a long stretch of slow numbers: “Mr. Bojangles,” with its endless choruses waltzing by, one just like the last; a couple of inspirational numbers with harps, strings, choruses, backup sopranos but little soul; and a gospel number which wouldn’t be half bad if only Nina’s voice weren’t in shreds so much of the time.
Finally, in the last cut, Nina puts her stamp on a song the way she used to. The song is “My Way,” which we have come to know as a boozer’s lament. But Nina sings the banal words with defiant vibrato and fierce stage whispers, as if to say that doing things her way in White America was a major triumph. And the arrangement is up-tempo; like some of Nina’s old arrangements, this one is very Franco-pop in the Brel-Aznavour manner, but the bongos and the sweeping strings work and Nina makes her point, which is that her version has nothing to do with Sinatra‘s.
Nina may have choosen to finish with “My Way” because it expresses her current state of mind more accurately than any other available pop song. It is, after all, a song of retirement and Nina seemed to be talking of retirement at her concert. Having finished a masterfully paced set, she turned her majestic presence up all the way and announced her signature song, “Young, Gifted and Black.” “I am giving this song to you,” she said to the young audience, and she sounded nothing less than Mosaic. “I’m too old and too tired. I can’t do it much longer.” Add these words to the general weariness of this album and Nina’s “My Way” begins to sound more and more like a swan song.