The precocious blues prodigy, considered at the age of 16 one of the most promising voices in the field of blues laments, has turned into a furious funkster. Her second album, Wha, produced in New York under the aegis of Philippe Devin and Jerry Barnes—the noted bass player with Chic and a distinguished sideman on the Black music scene in the US—offers a powerful mix of B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Albert King and Chaka Khan inflections in a solid setting of tasteful Rhodes sounds, stylish guitar licks and sparkling horn riffs.
At first hearing, Nina Attal sounds like an opulent blues diva from Memphis or the Mississippi Delta. This impression couldn’t be further from the truth. The natural strength of her dynamic pipes has nothing to do with age, or weight. On stage, the intrepid singer won’t hesitate to call her musicians to order should they fall asleep on a bass line.
The no holds barred prodigy was only 17 when she walked off with five prizes at the respected Blues sur Seine Festival’s talent search. She recorded her initial EP, Urgency, a few months later, the same year she was invited to perform at the prestigious Montreal Jazz Festival. At the age of 19, in the wake of her self-produced first album, Yellow 6/17, she took French audiences by storm when she appeared on Nagui’s Taratata television show. Success was immediate for the seasoned performer whose bluesy style was already becoming tainted with funk and soul. Playing hard and strong, with a full horn section, was a natural way for her to make audiences dance. Carried by her inexorable musical recipe, she started touring at the head of a dynamite band all across Europe, opening for Jamie Cullum, Robben Ford, Avishai Cohen, Charlie Winston, or French pop star Zaz who insisted on taking her along when she toured Germany.
A chance encounter with Jerry Barnes at the Sète Festival in the summer of 2013 turned Nina’s career around. She was opening for Chic, riding high on the success of “Get Lucky,” when Nile Rodgers’s stellar bassist (Barnes has played with everyone in the Black music business, from Diana Ross to Stevie Wonder) took note of her. Cheekier than ever, Nina visited Jerry in his dressing room and gave him the demos of her new album. Not so surprisingly, Barnes called her a few weeks later and invited her to New York to write potential hits songs with her cohort and producer Philippe Devin. The two inflamed compositions that saw the light during those writing sessions, “Ain’t Gone” and “Baby,” convinced Barnes to go a step further and coproduce the album with the cream of his studio friends: drummer Steve Jordan (Eric Clapton), percussionist Bashiri Johnson (Michael Jackson), and Jerry himself on the bass. Floored by the proposal, Nina was not at the end of her surprises as her new producer suggested she come back to the Big Apple to record in the legendary Avatar Studio, once the home of Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan, among others.
This is where Nina delivered what she sees as her first “real” album, entitled Wha as a tribute to the famed Greenwich Village café where Bruce Springsteen, Kool & the Gang and Jimi Hendrix once honed their chops. A respectful nod to the journey that eventually brought her to New York, at the heart of the music she loves.
The even dozen compositions present on the album are ripe with well-tested grooves, sweet Rhodes licks, lashing bass lines, riffing guitars (including Nina’s own) and soaring horns. An ideal setting that fully showcases Nina’s exceptionally strong vocals, far from the usual blues diva clichés. A sweetly ironic lover on “Ain’t Gone,” she sings about the thin line between love and friendship on “Bring Me Back My Love,” funks up her game on “Stop the Race” (no doubt a killer with audiences when she takes it to the stage), takes a philosophic stance on “Good Guy” (a song inspired by the genius of painter Keith Haring) and pays homage to Clément Méric, a young left-wing activist who died in 2013, on the antifascist hymn “Put Them in Hell.” A rich and groovy bag of songs that will no doubt come into fruition on stage.