Nina Simone plays a stunning Bach-style fugue in the middle of one of her classic songs

4 May 2021, 17:47 | Updated: 20 January 2022, 17:36

Nina Simone & JS Bach
Nina Simone & JS Bach. Picture: Getty

By Kyle Macdonald

Pure musical inspiration as a jazz song overflows with Baroque counterpoint, with the effortless cool that could only come from Nina Simone.

We know Nina Simone as an icon of 20th-century music: a genius performer and songwriter. Her music flowed with irresistible jazziness and soul. But in her effortless piano playing, you might also hear more than a hint of something else.

As a young musician, Simone studied classical piano, and with it the complex contrapuntal keyboard music of J.S. Bach. In her improvisations, her study of fugues and classical forms shines through that jazzy surface.

And here’s one particularly extraordinary moment.

Just have a listen to ‘Love Me Or Leave Me’, and the journey she takes us on in the instrumental section from about one minute in (watch below).

Listen for the delicate, Bach-influenced fugue with subjects, counterpoint, and perfectly-placed motif development, all in the context of a sumptuous jazz song. Genius.

Read more: 19 black musicians who have shaped the classical music world >

Nina Simone "Love Me Or Leave Me" on The Ed Sullivan Show

As a young musician, before she found international fame, Simone wanted to find her career as a classical pianist.

She enrolled in New York’s Juilliard School, and later applied for a scholarship to study at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, but she was denied admission despite a great audition. Simone later said this was due to her being profiled because of her race. 

Simone went on to become one of America’s most beloved jazz artists, but classical music never really left her fingers and mind.