Despite having such a revered legacy, Nina Simone‘s career got off to a rough start, and things never got much easier for her. After being denied the opportunity to study classical piano at the Curtis Institute of Music due to race, her civil rights anthem “Mississippi Goddamn” got her blackballed in certain quarters of the music industry. She took a sabbatical in Barbados for a time, only to find that there was a warrant out for her arrest due to unpaid taxes (she was withholding payment out of protest against America’s involvement in Vietnam). On stage at the Montreux Jazz Festival, she solemnly told the crowd, “I have decided I will do no more jazz festivals. I will sing for you and share with you a few moments. After which I shall graduate to a higher class, I hope, and I hope you will come with me.”
That was in the summer of 1976, but The Montreux Years also collects Simone’s festival sets from 1968, 1981, 1987, and 1990. While she softened her resolve when it came to jazz festivals, her politics hadn’t dulled over time. When introducing “Four Women” and a cover of Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” in 1990, she sends out this dedication: “These next two tunes are dedicated to the black of America, the blacks of Switzerland, the blacks of the Middle East, the blacks of Africa. And we’re all very happy that Nelson Mandela is free, right? They thought that I was not political anymore, now what a mistake to think that.” You can track Simone’s changing moods through the five performances on The Montreux Years, and that’s only a fraction of their charm.
This two-CD/LP collection is part of an ongoing series of releases brought about by the Montreux Sounds company riffling through festival founder and organizer Claude Nobs’ vaults of recordings to find standout performances. The tracks on the second disc are culled from Simone’s 1968 Montreux debut, while the first disc jumps back and forth over the remaining years mentioned above. And while this first record may be a chronological and emotional jumble, I can’t say that any of this impedes the sequencing. “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”, “See-Line Woman”, and “Liberian Calypso” are indicative of the playful way Simone would interact with her audience.
On the other hand, “Stars”, the aforementioned “Four Women”, and the Rodgers and Hart cover of “Little Girl Blue” are deeply somber. “Backlash Blues”, a mashup of Langston Hughes’ words and Simone’s improvisation, is a potent standout of the latter kind. A solo piano rendition of the Gershwin brothers’ “Someone to Watch Over Me” kicks things up in a sandstorm. The last track gives the people what they want, “My Baby Just Cares For Me”. It’s as if she conceded to “shut up and play the hits”.
Nina Simone’s 1968 Montreux debut was nothing short of confident. Need proof? She started her set with a song about how all of our souls are doomed, “Go to Hell”. Her covers from other genres are just as courageous, including “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, “The House of the Rising Sun”, and “To Love Somebody”. This set shares “Backlash Blues”, “Ne Me Quitte Pas”, “See-Line Woman”, and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” with the first disc, their changes over the years being small but noticeable. Her selection from the musical Hair “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life” lasts nearly 11 minutes, but its soft groove easily makes it a highlight of the set.
Although every selection on The Montreux Years is a solid performance with Nina Simone running every aspect of her show, there’s still a warts-and-all feeling to the recordings. Perhaps Simone let a tiny bit of vulnerability show while performing. Or maybe it’s her career struggles that cast too strong a shadow. Any way you look at it, The Montreux Years is a live album that will live on in its ambiguous glory due to Simone’s musical and performative talents.