Live at Montreux 1976
Eagle Vision EREDV520 (2006 UK)
This show has been shown in theatres as "Love Sorceress", claiming to be recorded at a jazz festival in Paris. This is a high quality release done with great taste.
-Roger Nupie, Nina Simone Fan Club Newsletter July 2006
Rarely has any artist made a more dramatic entrance than Nina Simone at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival. Taking the Casino stage to the expected applause, she stands motionless, demanding the crowd's complete and total attention. Having established beyond doubt who's boss, she proceeds to deliver a set that kept the audience spellbound.
Mix in initial problems with an animated boom mike which encouraged an animated dialogue between singer and stagehand that nearly ended in grievous bodily harm, plus a lengthy therapy session with the audience and a dancing drum duel to end with, and you have the recipe for an hour or so of entertainment with a much-missed talent who left us in 2003.
The cameras catch Nina at an unique time of her eventful life when, having abandoned the country of her birth, she spent the three years from 1974 exploring her African roots. 'Liberian Calypso' at the end of this DVD tells the story in song.
Nina Simone's love affair with music began in the Thirties when, as a child in her native North Carolina, she encountered the piano for the first time. As she herself recounts in her set introduction, her relationship with the Montreux Jazz Festival began in 1968, its second year. Contrary to her protestations that her second appearance would be her last, she would return again in 1987 and 1990, the second time with a three-piece backing band. We extract highlights from thos two sets as bonus features.
But the main course is her powerful performance from 1976 which begins with 'Little Girl Blue', a song first heard on 1966's 'Let It All Out'. The following year's 'Sings The Blues', her first album for RCA, had premiered the powerful 'Backlash Blues'. This featured lyrics from black activist Langston Hughes, whom she credits in her on-stage introduction. Nina was recording political material long before it became fashionable to do so: another notable song of protest featured later in this DVD is 'Mississippi Goddam', written in response to the death of four black children when a church was bombed in the early Sixties. Nina was an active campaigner in the civil rights movement, often to the detriment of her career.
In technical terms, 'Be My Husband' comes from 1965's 'Pastel Blues' album, but the way Nina picks up the drum beat to sing otherwise unaccompanied is dramatic stuff and bears little relationship to the studio recording. 'Everybody took a chunk of me' she proclaims in a rap over the beat. And how true that was: she had to go to law to claim royalties from the early part of her career that had remained unpaid for decades, even though her records were reissued countless times in the wake of later success.
Returning to the piano, she teases out a tune that will be specially familiar to UK cinema buffs, as Barry Norman used an instrumental version on his BBC film review programme for many years. 'I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free' was a highlight of 1968's 'Silk And Soul', and takes on a new meaning here with Nina travelling the world in search of her destiny.
An encore of Janis Ian's 'Stars' is preceded by a call for 'my friend David Bowie', a Swiss resident at the time, who is sadly not to be found among the audience. Thanks to this DVD, he can now enjoy an unique reading of a song about the flip side of fame that Nina is qualified to interpret. She reads the roll call of tragic heroines, from Janis Joplin to Billie Holiday, and it's possible to look between the lines to note her personal torment.
Her past had indeed been a chequered one. Born Eunice Waymon in North Carolina in 1933 to parents heavily involved in the Methodist church, she showed an early aptitude for both organ and piano which led to her attending New York's Juilliard School of Music, a staging post for jazz musicians wishing to attain a 'legitimate' training. This classical background is evident in most of her keyboard work. Living in Philadelphia, she paid her dues by working the sleazy clubs and dives of the sprawling East Coast cities and wrote her evocative songs from personal experience, not to mention several fated love affairs.
'Stars' segues directly into an extraordinary version of the MOR standard 'Feelings' which, in Nina's hands, is totally deconstructed. After that, another improvised encore is almost too much but her frantic cross-stage shimmying adds one more unexpected page to the Simone scrapbook. One monologue and the addition of a Senegalese drummer later, a percussion-fest ends this memorable evening in inimitably anarchic style.
Fast forward another 11 years to 1987 and we can enjoy a solo two song mini-set that kicks off with a rendition of George Gershwin's Twenties classic 'Someone To Watch Over Me'. Then, after a few choice remarks, Nina revisits 'My Baby Just Cares For Me', a track recorded almost three decades earlier for the Bethlehem label which had become an enormous and unexpected hit this very year after its use in a UK TV advertising campaign for Chanel No 5 perfume. 'I have no perfume...and not the money either,' she grumbles. She got the cash eventually, if not the sweet smell of success.
Another hit revisited, this time in her band-backed 1990 performance, is 'I Loves You Porgy'. Her original jazz-influenced interpretation of a song plucked from the Gershwin musical Porgy And Bess was a US Top 20 hit on the Bethlehem label in 1959 and confirmed Nina Simone as one of the great voices of black music, following in the tradition of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.
'Liberian Calypso' finds Nina indulging in her unique approach to audience participation, while she celebrates Nelson Mandela's release that year with the moving 'Four Women'. Updating 'Missisippi Goddam' to mention Bush. Reagan and Thatcher, she leaves us on a reflective note with Jacques Brel's 'Ne Me Ouitte Pas', an entirely appropriate ending to her fourth and last appearance at Switzerland and the world's premier jazz festival. We will not see her like again.