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Music Review: Nina Simone – To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story

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It's become fashionable for older artists to stretch their wings and sow their wild musical oats by trying out new genres.

Bruce Springsteen rustled up a gigantic folk-jazz band and recorded a record of Pete Seeger covers. Pat Boone put on a creepy leather vest and did some vocal pop versions of hair metal tunes. And Elvis Costello… well, he's tried just about everything.

Many of these experiments in new musical styles turn out quite good, but none of them can really replace what each of these musicians does best. I liked Springsteen's Seeger Sessions well enough, but give me the E-Street Band any day.

It's rare, though, to find an artist where genre-hopping is so instinctive that each different musical style becomes absorbed into the artist.

Nina Simone is such an artist. Through her voice and piano skills, "genre" and "style" become meaningless words — jazz, ballads, funk, soul, pop, Broadway and the blues all mesh equally well within her music. Whatever music she performs immediately transcends genre — they all become Nina Simone songs, plain and simple.

RCA/Legacy and producer Richard Seidel have assembled three discs of music that capture the essence of what made Nina Simone such a singular, brilliant artist. To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story includes fifty-one tracks over four hours, including eight previously-unreleased tracks. Also included is a 23-minute DVD featuring a short documentary and live performances from Simone, and the requisite detailed booklet with excellent notes by Simone biographer David Nathan — it's a nice package.

This box set was my first real exposure to Simone's music, and it flat-out bowled me over. It's breathtaking to hear her evolve over the nearly forty years covered by the selected tracks, and yet, there's a remarkable continuity there too — a Nina Simone song from her late period reflects essentially the same incomparable gift for interpretation and nuance that is there on her earliest recordings.

Fundamentally, that is Simone's greatest gift — as an interpreter. She wrote her own songs, plenty of them, and great ones at that… but even on her own material, she acted as a vessel for the music and lyrics themselves. Phrasing, dynamics, emphasis — these and other elements make up the toolbox of the singer. No one employed them more effectively than Simone.

And maybe no track speaks to her remarkable abilities better than her cover of Bob Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues." The original is a rollicking folk/rock tune from Dylan's seminal Highway 61 Revisited; Simone takes it apart and reassembles it as a wistful, regret-fueled ballad with light percussion and guitar work supplementing her own fluid piano. The song becomes a breeze blowing through the room; you can smell a fresh rain, but you just missed the storm.

Like Dylan, Simone's vocal work is absolutely unique. To say that no one sounds like Nina Simone is not a boast or gush; it's the simple truth. At turns rich and reedy, clear and croaking, every syllable and every word have their own power and meaning.

It's interesting, too, to hear Simone speak occasionally on these tracks — many of them are culled from live performances, as the stage was so often where she reimagined songs in the moment and created such vibrant artistry. Her speaking voice is almost always a bit hesitant, unsure — she talks carefully. Yet when she sings… such confidence, power, and grace, and effortlessly too. It's almost as though she truly speaks through her music, where she can communicate with the greatest effect.

To Be Free includes a number of Simone's most recognizable tunes, from her covers of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody" and Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You" to the buoyant and jazzy "Feeling Good," popularized by a remix in 2002 and featured on the soundtrack to the Sex and the City TV series.

Yet, this is not one of those boxed sets where you can be sure you'll know a handful of the "hits" going in, and maybe enjoy some of the other tunes as well — instead you're invited to wade into the depth and breadth of a catalog like no other in pop music, astonishing in its diversity and meaning, with nary a misstep. As great as each song is on To Be Free, Simone's brilliance can't be summed up in a handful of tunes. It's only when this set is taken as a whole that the full range of her abilities can be appreciated, and maybe in fleeting moments, understood.

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About Matt Springer