This new tribute to the late, unquestionably great Nina Simone starts with a brief intro: a slip of a track with a pleasant groove, over which the iconic singer’s daughter Lisa expresses the sentiment “My Mama Could Sing.” In the grand understatement category, that title ranks high. It also makes you wonder what the need was, exactly, for the mixed bag of 15 mostly solid tracks that follow.
If you’re familiar with Simone’s musical legacy — gifted vocalist, songwriter, interpreter, and pianist, who spanned multiple genres and influenced scads of followers — and her personal story — political firebrand, self-imposed US exile, mental-health issues — and how those two areas intersected, sometimes poignantly, sometimes explosively, then you know Simone was a complex, one-of-a-kind artist and human being.
If not, the recent Netflix documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” with which this tribute was timed to coincide, and the seminal “Nina Simone at Town Hall” live album are good places to start.
What “Nina Revisited” does is remind listeners of her breadth and influence. The tracks vary from astonishingly good — Gregory Porter taking up residence inside “Sinnerman” with a palpable desperation, the urgent instrumental track matching the calamity of his emotion — to acceptable, as when Mary J. Blige renders “Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood” a sort of edgeless quiet-storm jam.
Lauryn Hill dominates the album, and seems a natural fit for reinterpreting the work of an obvious hero. She offers a straightforward take on “Feeling Good,” perhaps Simone’s best-known song; soars on a beseeching “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” her rasp imbued with anguish; and adds hip-hop fire to an incendiary rap covering race relations, politics, and music on “I’ve Got Life.” She’s more ponderous on “Wild Is the Wind,” which includes a heaping helping of melodrama in the piano playing as well.
Common and Lalah Hathaway team up for a moving “We Are Young, Gifted, and Black.” Usher breezes playfully through “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” reminding everyone that he has technique when he wants to display it. The younger Simone returns for a sexy-yet-melancholy “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl.” And Alice Smith slays “I Put a Spell on You,” her stark vocal playing off warped and warbly guitar snippets, reaching powerful heights without any undue hollering.
That song, and many others in the set, either originated with different artists or have been covered memorably over the years. Here, they’re crowded not only by Simone’s ghost, but by everyone from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Jacques Brel to George Michael and the cast of “Hair.”
The album closes, fittingly, with Simone herself, sounding remarkably timely as she sings “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” If that track and the rest of “Nina Revisited” spark interest among a new generation of listeners, this will be a worthy tribute indeed.
Listen to Lauryn Hill’s version of “Feeling Good”: