Judge Ryan Keefer feels the blues. And the jazz, and the soul...
"It's a tremendous pleasure and honor to welcome to the 10th Annual Montreux International Jazz Festival, the incredible, unique and fantastic, the one and only, Nina Simone!"
Only recently have I personally listened to and have an appreciation for the music of Nina Simone. Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933, she developed an early talent for piano playing, which evolved into a taste for blues and jazz music, and she achieved success with "I Loves You, Porgy," from the Opera "Porgy and Bess." However, she managed to write her songs based on the oppression that African Americans were experiencing all around her. "Mississippi Goddam" was a song that addressed events surrounding a church bombing in 1963, and some later songs, like "Backlash Blues," were based on a poem from writer Langston Hughes. Simone's piano playing was exceptional, but it was her voice that separated her from the pack. Her voice was mystical, haunting, but melodic and yet still possessed enough power to entrance an audience. She continued playing concerts throughout the world until her death in 2003.
While her appearance at the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Montreux Jazz Festival was Simone's first at the concert (where she says during the performance that she has "graduated" from jazz playing), she went on to play on two other occasions. The playlist for this disc includes the following songs:
• "Little Girl Blue"
The next two songs are from her performance at the 1987 Festival, and they are:
• "Someone to Watch Over Me"
The balance of the concert is from her appearance at the 1990 Festival, those songs are:
• "I Loves You Porgy"
One of the surprising things that is immediately noticeable when you watch Nina Simone perform is that while others may decide to rock out, yell, cheer, say the name of the city, or some other tired rock craftsman trick, Nina Simone gently eases you into your seat and lets you know what to expect. Her song introductions are basically extended discussions about her inspirations for the song, or some of her travels that somehow transition into her songs, and she clearly has a fun time on stage. But she comes out to the stage on a rather authoritative gesture, standing in stage center without moving a muscle, even after the crowd applause has died down, to demand the audience's attention for her performance.
And for the songs that she performs, the audience's attention is well rewarded, as "Little Girl Blue" sounds fantastic. After "Backlash Blues," she leaves the piano and sings with a microphone, and dispenses some profound logic when it came to the untimely demise of Janis Joplin. After an excellent version of "I Wish I Knew," Nina comes back for an encore, acknowledging that "I left you hanging," before going into her next song. But before she does, she brings her set to a virtual halt while asking if David Bowie was in attendance, and stops a song when she spots a woman leaving her seat. Bizarre by some measures (and sure it is), but she does what she wants to do, and everyone else can sod off. Following this set and listed as bonus material is a brief glimpse of Simone and two songs from the '87 festival, where she looks almost unchanged from a decade prior. She may be a little more seasoned through the years, but it only gives her increased presence on stage while she delivers virtuoso performances of "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "My Baby Just Cares for Me." From there, the last footage comes from the 1990 festival, and the 57-year-old Simone belts out great versions of "Mississippi Goddam," "I Loves You Porgy," and "Ne Me Quitte Pas."
Like the similar Montreux discs that have been released, this one comes with PCM, Dolby 5.1 and DTS audio tracks. The PCM track sounds good, but the 5.1 Surround option is fuller and sounds more dynamic, but since I've got the chance to, I jumped at the DTS track, which is the best of the bunch. The video quality is much better than expected for a 30-year-old concert, so the fact that it didn't look like it was run through a washing machine was a welcome treat.
By and large, while Nina Simone may not be everyone's cup of tea, this collection of performance footage should be witnessed by even the most minor fan of music, to experience how talent backs up showmanship. Nina Simone was a diva before the word was being tossed around, and it's a pleasure to see one in action.
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