Friday, 6 February 2015


Autour de Nina ('Round Nina) is both a joyous and poignant tribute to Nina Simone, nearly 12 years after her death at the age of 70. This French-produced CD brings together top vocalists from different countries to re-interpret some of the songs that Simone made her own, which is quite a tall order.  But the singers deliver, for the most part, backed by intelligent and captivating arrangements.

The album starts with a very modern, “ultra-cool” version of Baltimore by the 25-year-old British artist Lianne La Havas and then moves into a scorching gospel-rock adaptation of Sinnerman, performed by the Nigerian-born musician Keziah Jones. They both manage to give the songs an individual flavour that most listeners will appreciate.

On the sixth track, French singer-songwriter Ben L’Oncle Soul stands out with his rendition of Feeling Good, sounding almost like a reincarnation of Simone with his passionate and dramatic delivery.

Composed in 1965 by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd, this song was one of Simone's masterpieces. Critics have hailed Feeling Good for bringing together classical music, blues and soul, and launching what would become a jazz standard, and Ben L’Oncle Soul does this musical history justice.

In contrast, his compatriot Olivia Ruiz might have opted for a different song because she has the insurmountable task of making something individual from My Baby Just Cares For Me, one of the pieces most closely associated with Simone. Ruiz doesn’t quite succeed, despite the “extra jazziness” of the music.

Singer Ben l'Oncle Soul (photo: FPT)
American singer Melody Gardot, meanwhile, brings new gravity and beauty to Four Women, composed by Simone in 1966 and first released on the album Wild is the Wind. She is matched by Swiss-born jazz artist Sophie Hunger, who lives up to her adopted name with a searing performance of I Put A Spell on You, probably the most memorable interpretation on this tribute CD – all hungry, tormented vocals, wailing instruments and an extended finale. One will want to listen to it again and again, along with the track by Ben l'Oncle Soul.

The other songs feature South Korean jazz singer Youn Sun Nah, the Franco-Moroccan performer Hindi Zahra, American jazzman Gregory Porter and French singer-actress Camille. Their performances are all enjoyable and touching in particular ways, even if one can’t help feeling that they don’t quite measure up to the “original” versions. But how could they? Simone took everything she did to an inimitable level.

Still the CD is a fitting tribute, especially when one refrains from comparing the singers to an incomparable star and pay attention to the superb instrumentation of the backing musicians. (Label: Verve. Produced by Maxime Le Guil and Clément Ducol.)