It may seem doubly foolhardy for a young, white Broadway singer to dive headlong into the Nina Simone songbook for her debut album, and to record that album’s dozen tracks live. But Idaho-born, Juilliard-trained Morgan James proves largely up to the task, as impressively demonstrated throughout this 60-minute set captured at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola last summer. Wisely, James surrounded herself with top-shelf players, including saxophonist Ron Blake, guitarist Doug Wamble, pianist David Cook, bassist David Finck and drummer Clarence Penn. They individually and collectively supply smart, sensitive support.
Though James exhibits neither Simone’s grit nor her anger, and sensibly sidesteps such fervent signatures as “Four Women” and “Mississippi Goddamn,” she is big-voiced and remarkably soulful—most notably on an “I Put a Spell on You” that smacks of Etta James and a muscular “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” She transforms “Don’t Explain” into a shadowy theatre piece; pairs superbly with Penn on “Be My Husband”; channels her inner Tina Turner on “Save Me” and “Trouble in Mind”; and finds a fresh, frisky way to interpret “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”
If there’s fault to be had, it’s with the more contemplative numbers. Even with as gifted a guide as Finck leading the way, her meandering “Little Girl Blue” never quite finds its center, and her “My Man’s Gone Now” feels incongruously impassive.