CD Review of To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story by Nina Simone
Recommended if you like
Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln,
Aretha Franklin
Nina Simone:
To Be Free:
The Nina Simone Story

Reviewed by Michael Fortes


ou can listen to pretty much anything Nina Simone ever sang, and she’ll cut right through you. The sheer force of her personal will was so strong, it’s almost impossible to imagine that this woman has been dead for five years now. That deep, enveloping voice emerged pretty much fully formed on her first recordings, though still, the difference between her early cocktail jazz sides for Bethlehem, like Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” and Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy,” and cultural and political touchstones like “Four Women,” “Mississippi Goddam” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” is startling. It’s the sound of mere entertainment giving way to an undeniable sense of purpose.

Believe it or not, To Be Free is the first box set to give a comprehensive overview of the career of the High Priestess of Soul. It’s not her first actual box set, though – the 2003 four-disc collection Four Women chronicled her classic Philips recordings of the mid 1960s. But this one here covers a lot more ground with less time, starting in the late 1950s and concluding on to the title track of her last studio album, 1993’s A Single Woman, across three CDs and one short DVD. Naturally, as this is a Sony-BMG release, To Be Free gives far more weight to Nina’s RCA years, though it never falls short in presenting the uncompromising force that made her voice impossible to ignore.

In its attempt to encompass the many facets of not just Simone’s personality, but also her taste, in the limited time span afforded three CDs, To Be Free succeeds. Not only are the aforementioned highlights included, the compilers wisely chose to draw attention to Simone’s interests in the music of Africa (“Westwind”), India (the previously unheard, sitar-heavy “Nina”), Jamaica (the slick groove of 1978’s “Baltimore”) and France (“Ne Me Quitte Pas,” recorded in English by Sinatra and others as “If You Go Away”), not to mention her affinity for Broadway musicals (“I Got Life,” from the huge hit musical Hair) and pop hits (too many to mention). It’s the latter that is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Nina’s entire career. Whether she was bending the melody of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” to her own ends, fusing George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” into a gripping 18-minute mashed-up medley with her own “Today Is a Killer,” or bringing her own soulful gentleness to the evergreen ballad “Let It Be Me,” Simone never forgot that the key to a perfect cover is to cast it in a new light and make it completely her own. Just listen to how she transforms the Rod McKuen-penned “A Single Woman” into an autumn-of-her-years celebration of independence, in contrast to Sinatra’s reading of brave resignation. To call these “covers” would actually be somewhat of an insult – nay, they’re reinventions, and exciting ones at that.

In keeping with the combination of class and unmistakable originality that embodied Simone as a singer/pianist/composer/interpreter, the box set itself is presented in a non-standard horizontal fold-out package adorned with simple and striking black and white photos. The DVD, while running only a short 23 minutes, is still a treasure – the entirety of an un-narrated 1970 TV special called Nina: A Historical Perspective that captures Ms. Simone in interviews, in rehearsal with her band, emoting, philosophizing, and just plain being her regular up-front self. The only major omission worth noting is “Lilac Wine,” which would have given this set a sturdier bridge to the younger generation that discovered Nina through the late Jeff Buckley’s cover of the song on his ’95 masterpiece, Grace. Other than that one small transgression, To Be Free paints a clear and enjoyable picture of Nina Simone as the ultimate melting pot artist, and a true original.

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