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Album Review: Nina's Back
Nina Simone
Cover image of the album Nina's Back by Nina Simone
Nina's Back
Nina Simone
2024 / Verve Records Reissue
35 minutes
Review by Steve Yip
Even though she left us so many years ago, we are treated to a reissue of jazz pianist, songwriter, and social activist Nina Simone’s Nina’s Back which was first issued in 1985. We are informed by the press statement that Nina’s Back was “recorded after a break from recording and time spent living in Barbados and Liberia, Nina’s Back features a rejuvenated Nina Simone reaching out to a wider musical audience.” That’s so true! This album is scheduled for a comeback and I find it worthy of comment as it is an enriched collection of uplifting and thoughtful melodies.

In many ways, Nina Simone’s records are presented with her signature gravelly voice with minimal musical accompaniment. This album is more fully presented, as the music comes off with broader arrangements, grooves and bass lines more associated with Black American popular music, but the messaging remains strong. The album starts off with “It’s Cold Out.” While the backup singers refrain with “It's cold out here” and “we’ve got the power,” Nina sings "we have to roll like thunder to keep from going under... These days there’s famine and oh so much poverty... we’ve go to change things... We've got the power to change... we’ve got do it now!” This urgent commentary is reflective of her obvious cultural shock upon witnessing continued poverty and homelessness in the U.S. upon returning from her hiatus.

“Porgy” is the next cut which Nina has taken possession and is highly credited for elevating and popularized since her 1959 debut album Little Girl Blue. Shortened from “I Loves You, Porgy,” this song follows with an opening monologue which intertwines throughout the song where Nina shares her origin story. Before she took on the stage name of Nina Simone, she taught piano and had auditioned to play piano at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City, NJ. The owner said to her that if hired, in addition to playing the piano, she also had to sing. As Nina explains in this song, “I was a pianist... Not a singer.” But the rest is, as they say... History.

“Porgy” is taken from the original by the Gershwin brothers in the 1935 opera and later Broadway production and movie Porgy and Bess. While I cannot fully analyze Nina’s iteration of this song, it obviously has a special place for Simone. And she delivers it with warmth.

“Touching and Caring” is a celebration and my favorite song from this collection. With backup singers, orchestration with prominent horns -- you’ll find yourself not just tapping your toes and feet, but having to get up for several steps and replaying it many, many times. While grooving along with the backup singers repeating ‘touching, caring” it brought to mind the review I did for Smokey Robinson’s Gasms. The lyrics are "tame" and differs from Smokey’s intimate insinuations. Simone also brings in some her higher singing ranges. Damn, this number swings! Jazzin’ and Bluesin’ y’all!

“I Sing Just to Know That I’m Alive” has a bright West African highlife sensibility. “You Must Have Another Lover” has Nina’s voice slightly muted, but still she comes on strong. This song can also fall into the dance music genre! Other songs in this collection include “For A While,” “Fodder On Her Wings,” and “Saratoga.”

After reviewing Nina’s milestone song “Mississippi Goddam” (June 25, 2023 MainlyPiano.com), I am compelled to share this gem from the promotional release: “In addition to their new release of Nina’s Back, later this year Verve is planning to debut a short documentary on “Mississppi Goddam,” the protest anthem that marked one of the most influential moments in Simone’s career. Simone holds nothing back on the groundbreaking track, which has remained steadfastly relevant to this day. This documentary will highlight the timeliness of 'Mississippi Goddam' 60 years after it was recorded.”

No doubt I am a fan of Nina Simone’s music and work. I find her powerful voice both as an artist, a performer and social commentator culturally and socially significant and impactful. The reissue of Nina’s Back is available from Amazon, Apple Music/iTunes and many streaming sites including Spotify.
February 26, 2024
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