This album was apparently a bit of a pastiche of leftovers from sessions for Nina Simone's four previous albums on Philips. But you'd never guess from listening; the material is certainly as strong and consistent as it is on her other mid-'60s LPs. As is the case with most of her albums of the time, the selections are almost unnervingly diverse, ranging from jazz ballads to traditional folk tunes ("Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair") to the near calypso of "Why Keep on Breaking My Heart" to the somber, almost chilling title track. Highlights are two outstanding pop-soul numbers written by the pre-disco Van McCoy ("Either Way I Lose," "Break Down and Let It All Out") and "Four Women," a string of searing vignettes about the hardships of four African-American women that ranks as one of Simone's finest compositions.
The two albums enclosed in At Town Hall/The Amazing Nina Simone bookend the remarkable summer of 1959 in the career of Nina Simone, when she recorded a studio session, The Amazing Nina Simone, in May, and in September appeared At Town Hall in a superlative performance that was recorded and soon issued. Just 26, Simone displayed great assurance, especially on the live date, casting off the cloak of the vocal jazz/standards singer and performing with her own trio featuring her lively piano. The studio date features an orchestra, but it too finds her early on in her recording career stamping her voice on standards "Willow Weep for Me" and "Blue Prelude".
"The trees are coming into leaf/Like something almost being said." Taking a cue from these lines of Philip Larkin, pianist Simone Dinnerstein casts her album of the music of J.S. Bach and Franz Schubert in poetic terms. Her understanding of the composers is summed up in her own words: "The music of Bach and Schubert share a distinctive quality, as if wordless voices were singing textless melodies." Of course, Bach and Schubert were masters of setting texts to profoundly expressive music, so it is fruitful to look for the lyrical impulse in their keyboard works and appropriate to find songful interpretations. Yet Dinnerstein doesn't merely serve up rhapsodic renditions or treat the music as some kind of tuneful vehicle for idiosyncratic or personal reveries. Her playing is quite in character for both composers, and her treatment of the material is far from self-indulgent. Indeed, counterpoint and harmony are carefully balanced against the upper lines, and Dinnerstein is completely in control of the inner parts in Bach's partitas and the rhythmic subtleties of Schubert impromptus. Dinnerstein's playing is well-rounded and skillful, and the care she lavishes on the smallest details of execution may well remind listeners of Glenn Gould (without his attendant eccentricities) or Angela Hewitt.
Nina Simone's live performances have a power and an intimacy all their own, and those qualities stand out in this 1987 recording from Vine Street. It's a stunning form of cabaret singing, dramatic without melodrama, and with roots that reach to Billie Holiday's surprising success with "Strange Fruit." Simone can add profundity to a usually carefree song like "My Baby Just Cares for Me," and the range of the performance broadens with the startling "Be My Husband," a simple pattern reduced to the naked force of a field holler, and the stark hymn "Balm in Gilead." Carefully chosen songs from Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, and Janis Ian achieve new dimensions in Simone's treatments…