Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘Pastel Blues’ by the first lady of the blues Nina Simone.
It’s 1954. In a bar on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City, a young Eunice Waymon plays jazz piano. She’s taken the job merely to fund her private piano lessons - she truly aspires to be the first black pianist to play Carnegie Hall. She’s licking her wounds from a hurtful and unexpected rejection from the Curtis Institute of Music.
She doesn’t want her mother to know she’s been playing “the Devil’s Music” and so invents a stage name, combining a nickname a boyfriend gave her “Nina” and the name of a French actress Simone Sigournet. She’s a talented musician - very, very talented. Nevertheless, her boss isn’t satisfied with merely a pianist and insists she sing, despite the fact that Waymon has never sung in her life.
She wants to keep the job, so she takes the stage and positions herself in front of a mic. It is through this combination of happy accidents (and maybe a mean-spirited bar owner) that the world was gifted one of the most distinctive jazz voices of the twentieth century, the soulful and almost masculine contralto of the inimitable Nina Simone.
The choice of ‘Pastel Blues’ as the featured album here is somewhat arbitrary - really, most of her albums are worth revisiting. ‘Pastel Blues’ (1965) however combines most of the quintessential elements of what lead to Simone’s enduring popularity - her crooning voice and its incredible range, her stunning technical skill, her ability to execute calculated risks, her influences and her relationship with what it was to be black in 20th century America. Simone had also, at this time, just begun to get more actively involved in the civil rights movement, an involvement which would go on to define (and for a while, ruin) her career.
The track people will probably be most familiar with is Sinnerman. The song needs no introduction - a ten minute epic, this extended version of a traditional African American song has cropped up in remixes, advertisements, samplings and movie/TV soundtracks. The muted piano introduction and quick, whispering trills of a hihat build as the song’s narrative - a story about a man attempting to flee divine justice on Judgement Day - develops, reaching a powerful crescendo as Simone sings “I cried, “Power!” and the texture of the piano and percussion accompaniment deepen.
Strange Fruit, though more famously a Billie Holiday song, is also familiar; less lively, it deals with the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abron Smith in Marion, Indiana. The velvety, pained quality of Simone’s voice and her decision to slow the song down, drawing out the images - “Strange trees bear a strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood on the root/Black bodies swinging in the summer breeze” - express how saddening and harrowing the story truly is, arguably better so than the original.
Simone’s piano talent did not go to waste with her career change, and this shows throughout the album. The End of the Line’s intro sounds, initially, more like Chopin than jazz. Though Simone’s voice is obviously the main attraction, the melodic accompaniments on their own are deeply enjoyable. She never shied away from difficult arrangements or ambitious key changes - her long-time musical colleague Al Schackman in the recent Liz Garbus documentary ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ commented on how difficult it could be to keep up with her level of musicality.
Despite essentially being a capella with some rhythmic, syncopated clapping and pedal cymbals to support it the album’s opening track Be My Husband manages to be one of the album’s most compelling tracks. It’s difficult to say whether this merely further reinforces the claim that Simone’s voice is her strongest asset or is in fact a testament to Simone’s penchant for interesting melodic arrangements.
They call her “The High Priestess of Soul”. It’s a moniker Simone herself somewhat rejected, as she never quite shook her love of Bach or disappointment that her girlhood ambition was never realised. The hesitant queen of jazz however eventually learned to embrace her legacy as many others have and most likely will continue to do for years to come.
51 years after its release, ‘Pastel Blues’ is still as gorgeous as it ever was, bordering on indulgent. Listening to it is like letting dark chocolate slowly melt between your lips - rich, velvety, and demanding your full attention.