In this album, Morgan James pays tribute to Nina Simone. While this album is about the work of Nina Simone, it is uniquely Ms. James in choice of songs (Ms. Simone was brilliantly prolific), in tone and in interpretation. In some ways, it brings out Ms. James in a manner her own work sung on Hunter can’t. Ms. James has to undertake the discipline of covering another artists (admittedly large, cross-genre) work and not mimic that artist. She not only makes it her own, we come to know her through her choice points, as opposed to Ms. Simone’s and others who have covered the same genre. It’s clear she not only has her own take on these songs, many of them standards sung by many artists, but she clear intimately recognizes her own instrument;, what her voice can do (just about anything), and how to best use it to convey the emotion and meaning of the song.
The venue for this live album is the famed Dizzy’s Club CocaCola, part of Jazz at Lincoln Center, so she has a discerning and appreciative audience. I’m not typically a fan of live recordings; while they capture the spirit of the night, often the acoustics aren’t great and the ambient noise (and coughs) mar what might otherwise be a solid recording. The sound stage at Dizzy’s is nearly perfect; intimate yet broad enough to capture the whole band. The recording engineers are able to capture a clean sound whilst including the audience reaction. An almost ideal live recording.
So let’s take a look at the first song, the classic “I Put a Spell on You.” This has been covered by everyone from Bette Midler, Bryan Ferry, Credence Clearwater Revival and most recently by Annie Lennox on her Nostalgia album. Some things become clear right away, one of which is her love of soulful music and jazz. She has an intimate, soulful pacing to the song; while she enlarges her voice as the song progresses, she never uses the song to showboat her incredible voice. Rather, she tailors her voice to the moment and emotion of the song. She is often quiet and intimate but she’s not afraid of being large and loud as needed. She takes the material seriously. Her rounding of notes, riffs and timing all are indicative of a soul singer.
“Be My Husband” is another great track to see how she’s more concerned with the music than highlighting her voice: she very clearly shows “cracks” of emotion throughout the song, but especially in the beginning, to convey heartache and a cry for a full relationship. She could have kept the notes more “pure” but less emotion laden. She loves the soulful edge of the music and everything else is driven to that end. Note however that, even as she includes these textures in her tone, she never loses her way or becomes self-indulgent; she is a master of her craft and stays on pitch with the right tone even in the midst of the most emotional appeal. This also comes across in her clear enunciation even as she packs in the emotion. She’s not just conveying notes but content. Lyrics matter and she makes sure lyrics are heard. By the way, that’s really hard to do. You have to really know the material to make it clear and imbue with pathos; she is one of the few who can do just that.
“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” comes across as a cross-over soulful pop song. This highlights Ms. James deep tie to the music. There is very little “diva singing” here. It is a more muted, soulful rendition that allows the lyrics to shine, witness the almost spoken “Don’t you know I have faults like anyone.” The band provides nearly perfect accompaniment on this with tight drums, great sax and melodic guitar.
Ms. James changes up “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy and Bess towards a jazzier, bluesy side from the traditional operatic sound a la another Broadway great, Audra McDonald or Leontyne Price. Ms. James kicks in with a baleful wail on “prayers” in “Old man sorrows/Come to keep me company/Whisperin’ beside me/When I say my prayers/When I say my prayers.” It was a bold move to take this classic on in a new way and it paid off.
Ms. James brings a great beat to “Funkier than a Mosquito’s Tweeter”: “You know you’re funky as a mosquito’s tweeter/You gotta mouth like a herd of boll weevils/Same old game, same old thing/You never changed/Always rappin ’bout the same old thing.” Clever words by Tina Turner’s sister, Aillene Bullock; I wonder if she was reflecting on her brother-in-law.
With driving rhythm, you sense that you’re just going to hang on to “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” This really is an opportunity for the jazz band to shine forth, especially the drummer, Clarence Penn. Billie Holliday’s “ Tell Me More and More and Then Some” is handled with aplomb; Matt Collar has described her as “crisp yet soulful.” That is clear on this track, where she puts heart and soul into each word yet her timing is impeccable and she enunciates her words clearly.
Ms. James rendition of “Save Me” falls somewhere between Nina Simone’s almost sing-speak syncopated version and Aretha Franklin’s almost pop version of the song. She does a nice job of bringing out the sense of the song whilst retaining its original flare. “Trouble in Mind” is made contemporary in the quicker tempo and brighter notes of Ms. James and the band. She retains a blues orientation in the jazz while “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” is yet another example of Ms. James conforming her singing talent to a song rather than the other way around. She starts out in a sing-song voice even as she comes to emphasize her style.
Not only is this album a beautiful tribute to Nina Simone but a great recoding debut for Morgan James within the context of a well-known body of work. I highly recommend the album.