It's Nina Simone's Year

A Netflix doc and a new star-studded tribute album detail her career and lasting impact.

Michael Ochs Archives

More than half a century since her career began, maverick soul-and-jazz-informed singer/songwriter Nina Simone is still not the household name she deserves to be. Those who know of Simone are often more familiar with her formidable reputation than her music itself. Devotees and those seeking a broader understanding of the stylistic development of American music and culture should be, and mostly have been, rejoicing over the recent Netflix original doc. Now, an accompanying tribute album is being released, featuring contributions from some of Simone’s contemporary spiritual successors and reverent fans.

What Happened, Miss Simone? is told mostly through audio of Simone narrating her own biography and in stunning live clips. These performances highlight her in her most well-known musical modes — her delicate, folk-song-based style of the early ‘60s, her celebrated civil rights-directed material (see “Mississippi Goddam” and “Young, Gifted, and Black”), and the vulnerable, plaintive balladry of her later ex-pat years. Using these performances as signposts, director Liz Garbus weaves a tight, extremely intimate story. The most glaring omission in the doc is in-depth discussion of her musical career; though she made just shy of fifty studio albums, Simone the recording artist is not accounted for at all. Neither is her specific approach to songwriting, or how it developed. However, the catharses and traumas of her private life offer plenty of source material, and the film is particularly powerful when it highlights — in Simone’s own words — how her understanding of her role and identity as a black woman in America (and, later, the world at large) changed over the course of her life.

The track listing on tribute albums is usually almost as interesting as the music itself: It’s always intriguing to see who shows up to pay homage. The way a participating artist approaches the source material is sometimes more of an outgrowth from the agenda of their own work than that of the honoree; other times, the performances feel pointlessly derivative. On the Nina album, there’s little that fits into the latter category. Here, Simone’s songs are mostly filtered through various contemporary soul-and-R&B-infused musical lenses.

The performances are often interesting, even if some seem to be a bit too postured and smooth around the edges to be fully in line with the ethos of Simone, who was so much more than the sum of her stylistic reference points. Jazz standard “Love Me or Leave Me” loses its double-time swing feel; Canadian singer Grace molds it into jerky afterhours lite-funk. Usher has the subtle rhythmic sense of a Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan-style jazz interpreter over the lithe R&B of “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” It’s definitely airy, but evokes a bit of the celebratory and fun side of early and mid-‘60s Simone, which is often downplayed in accounts of her career (including the Netflix doc).

Lauryn Hill’s six songs on the album, perhaps, capture all of Simone’s contradictions with the most alacrity, tapping into both the ‘90s hip-hop icon’s own distinct style and directly taking cues from Simone’s vocal delivery. Mostly this just demonstrates the ways in which, unlike many of the artists showcased, the particularities of Hill’s own style are already informed by Simone. Even up against these, though, it’s Alice Smith’s sprawling, backwards-guitar-based “I Put a Spell on You,” though, that best channels the disarming, otherworldly power of a hushed and intimate Nina performance.

Overall, the documentary feels like a careful working-through of the drama and contradictions of Simone, gently deromanticizing and complicating the popular narrative. On the other hand, the album is simply a spirited (if unfocused) celebration of her legacy. One can only hope that we’ll gain something new and equally powerful from the Simone biopic due out later this year.

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