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Not unlike the late Miles Davis, Nina Simone’s tempestuous persona—characterized by outspoken diatribes on civil rights, her financial woes, and many romances—is as much a part of her appeal as her considerable talent. As a vocalist, Simone has successfully taken on both the romantic (Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy”) and social protest (“Mississippi Goddamn”); she has brought passion to both without allowing any personal demons to affect her eccentric vocal style.
A Single Woman suggests that this particular singer is improving with age; Simone has dropped the tendency for excessive melodrama which in the past has marred otherwise stunning originals like “Music for Lovers.” Here, she replaces the quivering vibrato of her earlier work with a melodic and emotional clarity that, coupled with her growing subtlety, makes Woman a memorable assemblage of love songs.
Simone’s interpretations are in fact so stirring that you might not notice that three of these 10 titles are by schlockmeister Rod McKuen, whose songwriting is nearly as saccharine as his best-selling volumes of, uh, verse. Woman‘s title track, a tale of love and loss, was written by McKuen, but Simone’s never-maudlin autobiographical reading brings the song a quality Rod probably didn’t know it had. And though surrounded by a veritable forest’s worth of string instruments, her voice—deep and mellifluous as a cello one moment, rising toward higher registers the next—maintains a dignity and steadfastness that the title doesn’t deserve and probably will never get again.
The collection’s best performance is Simone’s reading of Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern’s “The Folks Who Live on the Hill.” That her vocals fail to reach the melody’s crests must be deliberate; it adds an unexpected poignance and ambiguity to the standard. A perfectly balanced (this time) string arrangement gives “Folks” a vivid sense of place. Is Simone lamenting the fact that she never became one of those folks? Play the track again and again, and perhaps you’ll find the answer.
McKuen’s “Love’s Been Good to Me” continues Woman‘s autobiographical approach, but it lacks the emotional fire of the album’s stronger tracks. The lame melody only flattens this heavy-handed attempt at chronicling the life of a romantic wanderer. Infinitely more effective are Michel Legrand and Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s “Papa, Can You Hear Me?”—its mournful quality is especially suited to Simone’s cantorial reading—and Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger’s “If I Should Lose You,” whose funereal tempo allows her to wrench from the song all possible nuances.
That Woman is not an all-ballad collection was a wise decision. But while the midtempo “The More I See You” and Simone’s own gospel-flavored “Marry Me” relieve the sameness of tempo (which hadn’t bothered me), their readings are less than compelling. Like McKuen’s songs, titles such as “More” need all the help they can get; here, “More” isn’t the anonymous throwaway a Vegas-style crooner might have produced, nor is it as stirring as much of Woman—or, for that matter, the bulk of Simone’s live and studio material.
Whereas Simone reveals much gumption by tackling material by the likes of Rod McKuen, vocalist-pianist Shirley Horn’s Light Out of Darkness is dedicated to a vocalist-pianist no less formidable than Horn herself, Ray Charles.
Light consists of material associated with the “High Priest of Soul,” and because at this point in her career Horn is one of the most distinctive—and certainly one of the finest—singers performing American popular song material, one never gets the sense she is attempting to beat Charles at his game. Her interpretation of a Charles hit such as Percy Mayfield’s “Hit the Road, Jack” is imbued with her own wit, swing, and foggy sensuality. Horn takes Jack Yellin’s tired “Hard Hearted Hannah” (a title nearly as execrable as “The More I See You”) and delivers it like a campaign promise, ably accompanied by two longtime associates, bassist Charles Ables and drummer Steve Williams, as well as Baltimore-based altoist Gary Bartz.
Horn captures the gospel-cum-country flavor Charles (and, later, the Everly Brothers) injected into “Bye Bye Love.” No less successful are her versions of Light‘s title track and “Just for a Thrill.” She stumbles only when attempting to further define Cindy Walker and Eddy Arnold’s lament of unrequited love “You Don’t Know Me”—this is one title Charles owns outright.
Still, Light‘s consistent sense of sophistication, humor, and genuine romance, coupled with Horn’s willingness to wander a little farther back in the wine cellar for material, makes this album the perfect tribute to Charles. The musical curiosity and soul of Ray Charles—and, for that matter, Shirley Horn—have (as we used to say back in the ’60s) turned more than a few 32-bar turkeys into proudly strutting peacocks.