Of all the great jazz singers, Nina Simone’s catalog and career is probably the hardest to summarize into a single compilation. Even to lump Nina Simone under the heading of jazz greatly simplifies her unique talents. Her interpretations of songs covered wildly different genres, while her original compositions were all spun and stamped with her distinct style. Any complete Simone collection would have to include her impassioned civil rights songs, as well as the good number of standards that she ended up wholly owning. For anyone new to Nina Simone, they would do well to pick up Anthology or The Best of Nina Simone. But for those who are ready to dig deeper, The Soul of Nina Simone is an essential addition to any enthusiast’s library.
By the time Nina Simone had started recording for RCA in the late ‘60s, she had arguably already done her finest work. She had also found herself with the same problem that so many of her contemporaries were facing with rise of rock ‘n’ roll—trying to stay relevant. The Soul of Nina Simone largely spans four albums, released between 1967 and 1969, her most prolific era with the label. What emerges is a strong case for the singer’s RCA output, and a renewed establishment of Simone as one of the finest song interpreters of all time.
The set kicks off with “Feeling Good”. The last time I heard this song was by Sinatra-lite singer, Michael Bublé, who smothered the song under David Foster’s big, bright, brassy production. In Nina Simone’s hands, and with her careful delivery, she imbues the song properly with a feeling personal emancipation. Michael Bublé would be well served to listen to this version and learn that simply having a big voice doesn’t translate into genuine emotion. It’s the strength of her voice alone that carries her through a fantastic run at the Bee Gee’s “To Love Somebody”. Powered largely by some astonishing work from session drummer Bernard Purdie, Simone makes this sugary love song all her own. And for all of Simone’s fiery, sad and angry material, it’s easy to forget that she could sing about love with just as much power. Just check out her buoyant live rendition (recorded in 1987) of “My Baby Just Cares For Me”, a simple, plaintive ode to a cherished lover. And the inclusion of her well-loved “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” is also a reminder of Nina Simone’s ability to treat love with just as much impassioned energy as her other, more provocative material. But, for those looking for a more complete profile of Simone’s personality, will find one small treasure among the disc’s largely lighter material. Tinged with Middle Eastern rhythms by drummer Don Alias, Simone’s pensive, absolutely heartbreaking take on Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” is jaw dropping. It speaks to Simone’s abilities that she can best one of this generation’s most important songwriters using his own work.
But what will undoubtedly excite Simone fans, and what is truly the highlight of The Soul of Nina Simone is the DualDisc’s video portion. Featuring live performances that have been impeccably restored, it is a rare chance—especially for younger listeners like myself—to witness the raw energy of both Simone’s playing and singing in a live setting. The first two cuts take us back to 1960, with Simone’s debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. She begins with an energized “Love Me Or Leave Me” that slowly builds and following an amazing solo (it is truly a revelation to watch her play the piano), finishes with a fantastic flourish and a display of her powerful voice. Her next tune is the beautifully performed “I Loves You Porgy”. It is interesting to see the sea of white faces in the audience as she finishes to rapturous applause, an irony, that I’m sure wasn’t lost on Simone. The other performances fast forward to the tail end of the ‘60s, when Simone was at the peak of her popularity. We get two cuts from the legendary Bitter End in New York City, beginning with an amazing, almost ragtime romp through “House of the Burning Sun” followed by the dark, cautionary religious tune “(You’ll) Go to Hell”.
But it’s the most potent material that is saved for last. In what became known as the “Black Woodstock”, 1969’s Harlem Festival was a series of six concerts that drew nearly 100 000 people to Central Park’s northern end. It is distressing to learn in James Gavin’s excellent liner notes, that though festival organizer and produer Hal Tuchin was able to sell the festival’s first concert, he couldn’t find an American buyer for the rest of the shows citing a lack of interest among the networks for a “black special”. For the first time, Simone’s performances have made available to the American public and they are simply fantastic. “Revolution”, “Four Women”, “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” are superb here and lent an extra dose of vitality in this important setting. Watching Simone perform these songs in her prime is mesmerizing, astonishing and a real gift.
With The Soul of Nina Simone RCA/Legacy has done a great job of presenting as full a portrait of Simone as possible, with the resources they have. While I could never call the audio collection definitive, it is a strong summary of her last major works under a big label. It is the video portion however, that makes this a highly recommended purchase. It solidifies Simone’s importance as a songwriter, performer and activist in a way that simply listening to her will never quite achieve.