When Malawian vocalist Malia first broke through in the mid-aughts, it was with the dense, production-heavy albums Yellow Daffodils and Young Bones. Overflowing with pop-soul sass, they were filled with both slick originals like “Mr. Candy” and “Richer Than Bill Gates” and inventive covers, including a freeform, funkified “Solitude.” All of which is a far cry from the stark, and stunning, Black Orchid, a fine, sensitive tribute to Nina Simone.
Where once Malia was intent on echoing Beyoncé, she now seems to be channeling Billie Holiday or Shirley Horn, her supple voiced slightly scorched, her once fervid delivery affectingly slowed and shadowed. Malia has clearly studied Simone assiduously. Her readings of “Baltimore,” “Wild Is the Wind,” “Feeling Good” and the seismic “Four Women,” though more tenderly presented, are largely honorific mirrors of the originals. But, backed throughout by an understatedly enriching rhythm section—a French trio comprising pianist, organist and vibraphonist Alexandre Saada, bassist and guitarist Jean-Daniel Botta and drummer Laurent Sériés—she mostly steers clear of mimicry, particularly on a slow, erogenous “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” a seductive “I Put a Spell on You” and a “Don’t Explain” that delicately captures the concessive lyric in a way that suggests Peggy Lee at her most meditative.