Nina Simone – Little Girl Blue – Bethlehem Records (1958)/ Pure Pleasure Records (2012) BCP 6028 180-gram mono vinyl, [4/16/13] 41:24 *****:
(Nina Simone – piano, vocals, arrangements; Jimmy Bond – bass; Albert “Tootie” Heath – drums)
Little Girl Blue is more than a splashy debut. It’s an artistic statement by a jazz virtuoso. Originally recorded in December 1957, this would be Nina Simone’s only release for Bethlehem Records. However, it is a tour de force of musical vision. She reinvents a wide variety of material, commanding the essence of the compositions. Side A opens with a breathtaking, cascading piano introduction to “Mood Indigo”. Simone’s piano runs ruminate with classical shading, but have uncanny, jazz/swing notation. As her smoky alto voice joins in, the song is transformed. “Don’t Smoke In Bed” has become a jazz standard. But mixed with soulful balladry and exacting piano accompaniment, the song is near-mournful. Shifting to Broadway, the title track is unusual and mesmerizing. Taking the melody line from “Good King Wenceslas”, this simple refrain is woven into a harmonic bluesy interpretation. The complicated mastery of counterpoint themes on piano (a sort of quodibet) offers a glimpse into the fearlessness of Simone. On “Love Me or Leave Me”, she eschews the customary sentimental take and swings with jaunty rhythm shifts and complicated, inventive piano riffs.
Unlike all of her female peers, Simone is a serious bandleader. The final cut on Side A demonstrates her intuitive feel for trio dynamics. Finger-snapping cool imbues “My Baby Just Cares For Me”. Though obscure, this song would be identified strongly with the Nina Simone legacy (even appearing in a mid-eighties perfume ad that revived her career). There are two instrumentals on Side B, and both are terrific. “Good Bait” has a moody piano intro that morphs into a dual-tiered blues vamp. This slower groove captures the unity of the trio. Simone has a mind-boggling solo, before the crescendo-laden finish. The second instrumental (“You’ll Never Walk Alone”) is a reverberating hymnal that distances itself from theatrical construct. Ahead of her time, “Plain Gold Ring” utilizes a deliberate, march-time cadence to underscore an exotic folk vibe.
At this point, Little Girl Blue is an excellent jazz album. Then the listener is treated to the quintessential rendition of “I Loves You Porgy”. This was Nina Simone’s first big hit (in the Billboard Top 20), and her vocals are dazzling. She delivers all of the emotional intensity, but never overwhelms the music. Her piano solo is subtle and delicate, especially on the higher register. Her arrangement skills are evident on the final number, “Central Park Blues”. There are blues motifs throughout the session, but this is an intuitive, syncopated late night gem. All eleven songs are strong…there is never a letdown.
Pure Pleasure Records has done a sensational job in re-mastering this mono recording. Piano and voice tonality is superlative. The mix is clear and responsive to the different musical levels. This album sounds contemporary and electrifying.
Side A: Mood Indigo; Don’t Smoke In Bed; He Needs Me; Little Girl Blue; Love Me Of Leave Me; My Baby Just Cares For Me
Side B: Good Bait; Plain Gold Ring; You’ll Never Walk Alone; I Loves You Porgy; Central Park Blue