In these 21st-century times, the art of creating a "great album" for the ages is often lost on a generation focused on individual songs as opposed to taking in a compelling, long-form listening experience. This notion is also sometimes evident when it comes to re-issues, with numerous labels hastily repackaging past hits pressed on seemingly fancy vinyl with little regard for restoring original packaging, tracking down original masters, recreating original sequencing and the original listening experience as the artists might have intended it.... or as fate intended as was sometimes the case with popular music back in the wild west days of the nascent music industry.
Fortunately there are handful of compelling labels still out there fighting the good fight for musical credibility including Rhino Records, jazz scholar Zev Feldman's Resonance Records and the good folks at Omnivore Recordings. The latter have recently collaborated with one of the big record conglomerates (BMG) to create a compelling new offering of highly influential vintage material by the late great Nina Simone. This new album, titled Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles compiles for the first time rare 45 RPM Monaural single edits of music from Simone's stellar debut.
To my earlier point about "fate," these single edits are not to be underestimated because back in 1959 and the early 1960s, those versions are probably what most people first heard from Nina Simone when they were played on the radio -- particularly her mega-hit of her interpretation of Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy." Consider: in 1959 that song (according to the Wiki) made it to #18 on the Billboard's Hot 100 and #2 on the R&B chart! If you haven't heard Nina's "... Porgy", please take a few minutes to listen here and try to imagine a song like this today being played on commercial pop music radio and becoming a big hit. It is really just a wonderful event.
The versions of these songs that came out on the album at the time - - the legendary collection called Jazz As Played In An Exclusive Side Street Club, to this day revered and a hard to find release on original vinyl -- were a little different from what people heard on radio as played off of the 45 RPM singles.
Now, the story goes that Nina was not very happy with her label at the time and left Bethlehem not long after the album's release for Colpix Records (affiliated with Columbia Pictures and thus having access to much deeper promotional resources). To capitalize on her surprise ascent, Bethlehem divvied up all the tracks she had recorded for the debut album into a series of singles, releasing them over the course of several years while riding the coattails of her success.
So it goes in the music business...
Fast forward to the 21st Century, as producer Cheryl Pawelski and mastering engineer Mike Graves (Osiris Studio) were working on a reissue of Nina's first recordings, along the way they discovered they had a very different project on their hands than they had originally envisioned. I reached out to the label's PR folks for clarification about the content to this album and was given some special information direct from Mr. Graves about the set:
"I had about 10 or 12 CD versions of Little Girl Blue in my collection (and four vinyl versions) that I was using for reference and none of them used the single edits. To my knowledge none of them have ever seen the digital light of day. I wasn't even aware of the single edits until I was near the end of my process and I was doing a last minute check against the 7" transfers from Cheryl's collection. I stared seeing huge time discrepancies, told Cheryl and we realized that we suddenly had a whole new element to this release. As I recall we even pushed the deadline back to give me a little extra time to match the edits."
The resulting album, Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles, is now available to in a multitude of audio formats and it's all really quite wonderful. Assembled from the best available sources, the album gathers versions of these songs, edits which formally only lived on the original 45 RPM singles. These also include one alternate take of "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands" (which is what was on the original single release apparently). There are 12 songs on the vinyl album plus you get a re-creation of that original first "Porgy" single. All the records are on thick, dark, well centered black vinyl sporting period-accurate Bethlehem Records labels.
For what its worth, some of you might appreciate that I especially enjoyed listening to the vinyl version of Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles while using my Monaural Denon DL-102 cartridge (which I wrote about a while back, click here for that review). I recognize that some might argue that this is overkill given modern microgroove stereo cutters used for making most records these days, mono-stereo compatibility and such, but I found the sound coming forth from my speakers while using the Denon especially alive and vibrant. It was more three dimensional, presenting more of the air of the studio and a bit more focus -- more so than my stereo Sumiko Pearl cartridge or the Goldring 2400 on my best turntable, a Music Hall MMF 7.1.
Food for thought...
It is worth calling out that the bonus 45 of "Porgy" sounds especially great and the rest of the collection features some fine sonics overall, all things considered. The collection was mastered for vinyl by Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio in Los Angeles, so you know that this album has been given the premium, handle-with-care attention it deserved. The results speak for themselves. Given that the producers were working with a variety of sources (most from original master tapes according to Mr. Graves), there is great track to track consistency, as an overall listening experience. At the end of the day however it is all about the performances and they are wonderful in their original Monaural presentation in whatever format you prefer.
The Tidal stream sounds solid in 16-bit, 44.1 kHz CD quality and the download is handy for mobile applications. While this album is not available in MQA there ARE a number of other Nina Simone albums up on Tidal in that audiophile format (marked with an "M" in a little cube). So, poke around and check out what you can find. Nina made a lot of recordings in her day for Philips, Colpix and other labels, all worth exploring. To get you started, here is a link to my search on Tidal for Nina Simone's recordings.