There was only one Nina Simone, an original and highly imaginative artist whose style embodied a wide range of influences from musical Americana and beyond. To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story (three CDs and a DVD) is a fine boxed set overview of her career, emphasizing the live performances where she was most in her element. Culling material from her Bethlehem, Colpix, Philips, RCA, PM, CTI and Elektra recordings, To Be Free is the most comprehensive and wide-ranging of many available collections; it includes all the Billboard and UK national chart singles plus previously unreleased jewels.
Although Simone's stylistic epicenter might be categorized as soulful folk music (or better, 'folkful soul music'), the cuts are aggressively eclectic: "Mood Indigo"'s medium-swinging jazz; the Billie Holiday-esque crooning of "I Loves You Porgy"; the R&B saunter of "My Baby Just Cares For Me"; the country-blues stylings of "Trouble in Mind"; classic Bessie Smith belting over "Nobody Knows You When Your Down and Out" and "I Want To Put a Little Sugar in My Bowl"; the sophisticated Broadway delivery of "The Other Woman" and "Pirate Jenny" (reinterpreted here with a distinctly Afrocentric theme); folk-rocking covers of Bob Dylan, The Animals and Leonard Cohen; the sanctified sounds of "Let It Be Me," "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" (Simone's self-penned Civil Rights anthem) and George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord"; the boogaloo dance beats of "Turn! Turn! Turn!," "Save Me," "Tanywey" (an offbeat unreleased original); the heavily orchestrated pop arrangements of the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun," "Poppies" (an anti-drug message song), "A Single Woman" and "Just Like a Woman" and the world-beat fusions of "Westwind," "Nina," "Baltimore" (which would have made an excellent theme song for HBO's The Wire) and "Zungo" (a Babatunde Olatunji cover).
Simone was a formidable and expressive pianist, as evidenced on songs like "Mood Indigo" (one of the few cuts demonstrating her improvisational prowess in the jazz idiom), "I Put a Spell On You," "Seems I'm Never Tired of Loving You," "I Think It's Going to Rain Today," "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair," "Who Knows Where the Time Goes," "Just Like a Woman" and "Sugar." Her voice, instantly recognizable for its signature fast vibrato, was an instrument of astounding pliability, capable of hoarse shouts and rough growls or gentle murmurs and intimate whispers.
On record and especially in concert her creative flow was unstoppable, her ideas pouring forth with a natural ease and restless fecundity, seldom repeating themselves. Her ability to establish a close rapport with audiences is audible on the box' live tracks and is especially obvious on the DVD cut titled "Percussion/Drums/Clapping/Dancing" that shows Simone expressing her soul with distinctive body language, milking the moment to ever greater peaks of ecstasy. The brief video documentary also gives insight into Simone's personal philosophies about music and life, showing her in casual conversation, in rehearsal and on stage.
Mood Indigo; I Loves You, Porgy; My Baby Just Cares for Me; You Can Have Him; Wild Is the Wind; Trouble in
Mind; Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out; When Malindy Sings/Swing Low Sweet Chariot; See-
Line Woman; Pirate Jenny; Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood; I Put a Spell On You; Ne Me Quitte Pas; Feeling
Good; Four Women; My Man's Gone Now; I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free; To Love Somebody;
Sunday in Savannah; Backlash Blues; Mississippi Goddam; In the Morning; Ain't Got No-I Got Life; Do What
You Gotta Do; Seems I'm Never Tired of Loving You; Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues; The Times They Are A-
Changin'; Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season); The Other Woman; I Think It's Going To Rain
Today; Save Me; Revolution; To Be Young, Gifted and Black; Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair;
Westwind; Who Knows Where the Time Goes; Suzanne; No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed;
Just Like a Woman; Here Comes the Sun; Tanywey; Funkier Than a Mosquito's Tweeter; My Sweet Lord/Today
Is a Killer; Let It Be Me; Poppies; Mr. Bojangles; I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl; Nina; Zungo; Baltimore; A
Single Woman; Ain't Got No-I Got Life; Pirate Jenny; Don't You Pay Them No Mind; Milestones; Go To Hell;
Backlash Blues; Percussion/Drums/Clapping/Dancing; I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free; Precious