Saturday 16 January 2010

Nina Simone - And Piano! (1970) RCA SF-8074

"Would you rather be remembered for My Baby Just Cares For Me or..."

"I'd rather be remembered for Nina Simone And Piano!" Nine Simone, in an interview with Mike Butler, March, 1999.

Coming from a turbulent time when Nina Simone was the figurehead of the civil rights movement, Piano! is not so much a pronouncement on the state of the nation as the state of the soul. A stately cadence introduces Seems I'm Never Tired Lovin' You, and sets the tone for the entire album: deep emotion, exposed to the point of recklessness, with nothing superfluous. Nothing intervenes between artist's intention and listener's response. Nina's exquisite piano bears the weight of cauterising feelings. Arrangements are spare and perfect.

The song, by Carolyn Franklin, Aretha's sister, describes a superhuman love, strong enough to survive the world's destruction (evoked by crashing chords, thunderous bass tremolo and dizzying glissandi). It says something for Nina's highly wrought state of mind that such an unassuming love song could be a pretext for apocalypse. Nina then personalises the holy blues with Nobody's Fault But Mine. The fundamentalist sentiment is mildly subverted by funky-butt piano but the fear is genuine: a belief in a stern God has overwhelmed the singer's hope of salvation.

Randy Newman's quietly cracked study of emotional ambivalence, I Think It's Gonna Rain Today, is more defiant than the original, with Nina settling personal scores in the imaginatively reworked middle section ("tin can at my feet...") Odd to think, but perhaps, in 1969, Jonathan King and Randy Newman seemed kindred spirits: alike in their sardonic, socially concerned songs. Whatever, Nina invests Everyone's Gone To The Moon, King's jibe at consumer society, with more profundity than the song has received before or since. Compensation, Simone's setting of a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, returns to the deadly serious question addressed by Nobody's Fault: has our experience in this world irretrievably damaged our immortal soul? The lyric, in full, reads:

Because I have loved so deeply,
because I have loved so long,
God in his great compassion,
Gave me the gift of song.

Because I have loved so vainly,
and sung with such faltering breath,
the Master in his infinite mercy,
offers the boon of death.

And then things get really metaphysical. Who Am I, the first song on side two, tackles the theme of reincarnation. Nina's mood is solemn. "My friends only think of fun, they're such a curious lot," she declares, before worrying about her place on the animal chain with speculative incarnations such as a mountain lion, a rooster, a hen, a robin, a wren, a fly, etc. It would be absolutely bonkers if it wasn't so profound.

By now Piano! has achieved a level of sublimity from which it never departs. Another Spring is a moving portrait of old age. An old woman sits in a rocking chair, garrulous and ignored. She is talking to herself, and out comes a litany of complaint: her husband is dead, her children don't come to visit, etc. The situation is recognisable everywhere, and not specific to the song's setting (a black community in the rural backwoods of the southern states of the US).

Marvel at how the piano accompaniment marvellously conveys the shifting, mercurial moods of the old woman. Splintered shards of sound represent her confused mutterings. A simple, single line of melody conjures up the shabby streets and bare winter trees that form her entire world. "And then..." And then a miracle occurs; Nina makes it happen right in front of our eyes. The quickened pace and a burst of clapping announces the renewal of hope and life. Another Spring is a paean to rebirth and regeneration, and moves from despair to triumph in the space of a breath. The "groovy" ad-lib, a word more frequent on Nina's lips than an old countrywoman in a one-room shack, reveals that this is also Nina's story.

The unsettling message of The Human Touch - that affection and warmth have been supplanted by impersonality and alienation - is belied by the tenderness of the singer's delivery. This makes the final, whispered assent ("Have we lost the human touch? Yes, yes, yes...") all the more devastating. The mood of reverie is maintained by I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes), which begins with a shower of notes like summer rain. Again, the delicacy is deceptive. Dreamy eloquence threatens to collapse under the weight of remorse. "What a guy!" the singer sighs, to Debussy-like shimmers. "What a fool am I... to think my aching heart could kid the moon."

The song's history is interesting. At Indiana University sometime in the late twenties, the composer Hoagy Carmichael was handed a scrap of paper containing a poem, signed only 'J.B.' When the song was published in 1939, the credit line simply said "Words inspired by a poem written by J.B. (?).' Finally, the author was located in Philadelphia - a Mrs Jane Brown Thompson. The poem was inspired by the death of Jane Brown's husband. Nina conveys the emotional reality of loss, with her tremulous, unbearably fragile voice. I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes) has become a standard among torch songs, and has been recorded over eighty times, but Nina's account is the definitive one.

After Nina Simone and Hoagy Carmichael, Nina Simone and Jacques Brel. The High Priestess of Soul and Belgium's great chansonnier must have shared shelf-space in countless bohemian households. In the late sixties, when Piano! was recorded, an Off-Broadway show called Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris was packing them in. Nina, who popularised Ne Me Quitte Pas in the States, must take some of the credit. Both Simone and Brel were romantic, charismatic performers, both had their demons, and both were drawn to use song as a means to make the world a better place. The extent of their shared disillusionment can be measured by The Desperate Ones.

The spiritual paralysis of The Desperate Ones is complete. In this City of Dreadful Night, death is not the final reward (as in Compensation) but the last degradation in a lifetime of futility. Oblivion is the inevitable end of all human aspiration, feeling and hope. Nina's incandescence briefly lights up this desolate place, only to be snuffed out as she takes her place alongside the innumerable souls who "disappear beneath the bridge of nevermore". A dispassionate, unnerving yet childlike bass counterpoint (one of only three overdubs on the album) tolls "boom ba-boom ba-boom". It has the last word.

It's curious that Nina's testament to compassion and resilience should conclude on a note of utter despair. Nina Simone - And Piano! reminds of what William Blake said about his Bible of Hell: "which the world shall have whether they will or no." Piano! was virtually ignored by the critics on first release, and sold hardly at all. Yet it's the definitive Nina Simone album.

Mike Butler

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