Album review

Nina Simone – ‘The Montreux Years’

Nina Simone – The Montreux Years
(BMG 4050538631241. Album review by John Bungey)

If you were whiling away the summer in Switzerland in the late 20th century, which was the year to take a break from the fondue and chocolate and catch Nina Simone at her very best at the Montreux Jazz Festival? This double CD, culled from five appearances between 1968 and 1990, gives a good idea of the answer. It also serves as a history of a ferocious talent, whose career was torn between the demands of showbusiness fame, her support for black civil rights and her personal problems – not least the long-undiagnosed bipolar disorder.

Eight songs come from her final show in 1990 – decent renditions of Simone set staples including See Line Woman and Jacques Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas. She does a good job of owning Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry. However, Simone’s baritone has lost its suppleness and her pitching can be suspect. There’s an encore clap-along to Simone’s smash-hit re-release of the time, My Baby Just Cares For Me, but it’s not a patch on the dazzling Bach-infused improvisations of the 1987 version (see video below). The 1990 set is mixed in among earlier shows on CD one, which jarringly shows up how her voice aged. There is in fact only one piece from 1987, a brief classically-minded piano exploration of Someone to Watch Over Me, and just one from 1981, an improvised blues.

So it’s back to 1976, a tempestuous, angry, vulnerable and poignant show that is the centrepiece of the Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? The singer, in exile from the US, had just left Liberia for the “terrible, wonderful peacefulness” of Switzerland. She talks to the audience as if talking to her therapist – which in a way I suppose they were. Here the false start to her version of Janis Ian’s Stars is omitted (“Hey girl, sit down. Sit down. Sit down,” she yelled to an audience member trying to leave). Simone heartrendingly delivers this story of showbusiness success crumbling to dust before seemingly forgetting the words and instead paying tribute to great women singers who have preceded her. Little Girl Blue and I Wish How I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free share the same world-weariness and frayed emotion. This is Simone letting it all hang out – gripping to hear now but maybe not what the audience wanted back then.

The entire second CD is taken up with the 13-song set from 1968 and it’s soon clear why this is much the best-represented show. Simone sounds utterly engaged, she has a crack band, her voice soars and she is playing the unique mix of folk, jazz and pop that won her fame – everything from Bessie Smith’s Gin House Blues to the Bee Gees’ To Love Somebody. Although the year marked the height of the civil rights struggle in America, of her protest songs only Backlash Blues and a lustrous, gospel-infused I Wish How I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free make it to Switzerland.

The show, like pretty much everything here, has been available before, but the existing Montreux 1968 album commands eye-watering prices on Discogs. For anyone who saw Simone only in her declining years (and I’ve never seen a car-crash of a set quite as excruciating as her slot at the Bishopstock Festival in Devon in 2001), here’s a reminder of a mighty talent at her peak.

LINK: Announcement of the release from the Montreux Jazz Festival website

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