Graded on a Curve:
Nina Simone,
Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles

To say Nina Simone needs no introduction surely feels right as far as clichés go, but it ignores that thousands of music fans are currently unfamiliar with her work. And that’s thousands too many. On February 9, those looking to dive into her vast discography are presented with a marvelous opportunity, as BMG is offering Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles on compact disc and on vinyl with a bonus 7-inch. Over the decades much of its contents have been fitfully available, but in oft-shoddy editions and with little or no context for the novice. With warm sound and informative notes by Ashley Khan, the set amplifies Simone’s brilliance from the beginning. Its release is reason to celebrate.

My introduction to Nina Simone came through her 1961 Colpix 45 “You Can Have Him” b/w “Gin House Blues,” which was tucked into a jukebox housed in a tea room in my hometown. Ruth’s Tea Room it was called, but the proprietor was named Vivian. It was just her and a canine companion, a friendly boxer named Zeus. On weekends, high school friends and I would often end up there to do exactly what you’d expect; converse and drink tea, though she also made a splendid orangeade. And on every visit, someone would get up to play that jukebox.

Occasionally, Nina’s A-side would get picked, but it was really “Gin House Blues” that we loved. And you might assume that hearing that record sent me on an immediate search to hear more of Simone’s work, but no; at that moment, in that context, curiosity and an unquenchable musical appetite was quelled by the comfort of ritual. Right then, those two songs were enough.

Naturally, I eventually took the plunge, and it was frustrating that Simone’s pre-RCA stuff wasn’t easy to find. It’s true that Little Girl Blue, her debut album for Bethlehem, which features most of the songs on Mood Indigo, has a long reissue history, but most of the action seems to have occurred in Europe and Japan. In the ’90s there was a slew of Bethlehem jazz reissues in the bargain bins, but Nina’s album never turned up. But over time and a handful of compilations, it was possible to piece together nearly all of Simone’s sole session for the label.

Having to scrape and strain to gather the full musical picture isn’t an unusual situation, but the ease of absorbing Mood Indigo’s 14 tracks really amplifies the heinousness of the neglect for Simone’s Bethlehem sides. Soaking them up anew drives home that her strikingly assured first recordings should be a staple of jazz collections, nay collections of American Music, far and wide.

How’d such a powerful debut transpire? Ashley Khan’s notes do a fine job of painting the full picture, and rather than simply regurgitating them, it suffices to succinctly describe Simone by the title of one of her defining songs, that is, Young, Gifted and Black. Classically inclined but stymied by the bigotry of mid-20th century USA, she began playing in clubs, where her skilled mingling of jazz, blues, pop, classical, and importantly vocals (at the behest of employers) brought her to quick prominence; entering a recording studio was inevitable.

That it was through Bethlehem’s Gus Wildi proved fortunate, as he allowed her, somewhat amazingly given the norms of the period’s record biz, to pick her own tunes and sidemen. She chose the trio mode, grabbing bassist Jimmy Bond who in turn secured drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath. Free of attempts to mold her to the marketplace, Simone’s personality, intelligence and talent shine bright.

To jump ahead, the top 20 chart success of “Porgy (I Loves You, Porgy),” grudgingly issued as a single by Syd Nathan (record-man of King and Federal Records fame, who’d entered the Bethlehem picture by buying half of cash-strapped Wildi’s label), resulted in the release of every song from that session onto 45 between ’59 and ’62.

Emotionally resonant but never overwrought, and with a deft touch throughout, Simone’s reading of the Gershwin tune is to some listeners the definitive version, and I’ve never heard it done better. On Little Girl Blue “Porgy” was track four, side two, but it leads off Mood Indigo’s CD and gets its own 45 with the LP pressing, backed with an upbeat take of the standard “Love Me or Leave Me.” Its highlight is the unpredictability of Simone’s knockout solo.

As someone who’s seldom adored the jazz vocal idiom (hey, a big part of my love of “Gin House Blues” is that it’s a blues), a key component in Mood Indigo’s personal success derives from Simone’s ability at the piano bench. Choosing depth of feeling over flashiness, and sprinkling in elements of surprise, e.g. integrating “Good King Wenceslas” into her reading of Rodgers and Hart’s “Little Girl Blue,” her playing is consistently engaging.

But vocally, she bails on the typical jazz-singer glamour moves for tougher regions, an approach emphasized by the album’s photos, which radiate a non-clichéd bohemian vibe. Even when fully engaging with jazz vocal style, as on “He Needs Me,” she elevates it, and on the piercing “Don’t Smoke in Bed,” she can make one forget that she’s dealing in standards.

Well, not entirely dealing in standards. Her original Afro-Caribbean instrumental “African Mailman” (originally released on Bethlehem’s follow-up Nina Simone and Her Friends, where here four selections were combined with tracks by Chris Connor and Carmen McRae) is a swinging standout, and even better is “Central Park Blues,” which is a treat for fans of bluesy yet erudite ’50s post-bop piano; there’s never any doubt who’s in charge, but I love how she momentarily scales back to briefly spotlight Bond’s playing.

In between those cuts is a swell dishing of Duke’s “Mood Indigo” that along with a terrific reading of Tadd Dameron’s “Good Bait” underscores the strength of Simone’s jazz foundation. The other side of the equation is no less interesting. In lesser hands, the grand emotive sweep of “For All We Know” would fall down limp like second-rate summer-stock theater stuff, and the instrumental “You’ll Never Walk Alone” would be crushed under its building concert-classical weight, but she manages to pull both off, and with no small help from Bond’s bowed bass.

She manages a similar trick by turning the trad gospel chestnut “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” into a non-trite affair. Across these recordings it’s easy to ascertain a defining Simone trait right off the starting blocks, specifically the resistance to being confined by genre. This is obvious in “Plain Gold Ring,” which could perhaps be ranked as a minor tune, except that it sounds like nobody else, certainly unlike any other ’50s jazz singer.

Of course, many times Simone just dug into a song because she liked it. That’s the case with “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” and through transformation her affection lingers; nearly 30 years later, after exposure in a television commercial, it became an unlikely chart hit. It closes out the set with a welcome dose of lightheartedness and strengthens the case for Mood Indigo as one of the finer debuts of its era. Sixty years later it still holds up.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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