The Soul of Nina Simone
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2005, Volume 12, #11
Written by John Metzger
Nina Simone dreamed of becoming a classically-trained pianist, and although she studied under a one-year scholarship at New York City’s prestigious Julliard School, it was the denial of her admission to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute that poisoned her mind even as it provided her with the driving force that propelled her forward throughout her career. Indeed, Simone never let go of the racial injustice that she experienced, and her disillusion with the world crept into everything that she sang. By the time the civil rights movement collapsed in the early ’70s, she had abandoned any remaining vestige of hope that America would (or could) change, and she lived the rest of her days in the South of France, where she died, alone and angry, in 2003.
It’s not surprising, then, that the recently issued 15-track retrospective The Soul of Nina Simone is imbued with sorrow and pain, and while it hardly provides a definitive overview of Simone’s provocative career, it does succeed in piecing together a solid survey of her work, primarily with RCA, during the 1960s. Throughout the collection, she interprets an array of material that runs the gamut from Burt Bacharach’s The Look of Love to George Gershwin’s My Man’s Gone Now to Randy Newman’s I Think It’s Going to Rain Today, and she effortlessly makes each selection her own. For Simone, disappointment lurked around each and every corner, and as a result, she filled The Bee Gees’ To Love Somebody with a sense of anguished betrayal and delivered a revelatory reading of Bob Dylan’s Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues that was weary, pensive, and embittered.
There’s little doubt that Simone’s albums sometimes suffered from arrangements that were both ill-suited and overly respectful, but so tremendous was her talent that her mesmerizing vocals typically managed to climb through the clatter. Fortunately, The Soul of Nina Simone largely forsakes the swollen string sections that adorned far too many of her recordings, and when it does venture down this path, it opts for the drama of Feeling Good, a song that gains significant resonance from the richly ambient textures of its newly minted enhanced stereo format. In addition, the set contains the debuts of a hauntingly primal rendition of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood that was captured at the Westbury Music Fair in April 1968 as well as a sterling medley of selections from Porgy and Bess that was recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1963. Still, it’s the sparse atmosphere of the material from Nina Simone and Piano!, on which she is accompanied only by herself, that is the most devastating and ruminative.
As for the impeccably restored video footage that graces the DVD-side of The Soul of Nina Simone, it undoubtedly is more than mere icing on the proverbial cake. For historical purposes, the set includes Simone’s inaugural appearance on national television, which was via The Ed Sullivan Show in September 1960, and although she gave a rather subdued performance, she still managed to demonstrate her immense skill by working a Bach fugue into the jazzy interludes of Love Me or Leave Me. Nevertheless, the pair of tunes captured at the Bitter End in 1968 — a simmering rendition of House of the Rising Sun and the dark groove of (You’ll) Go to Hell — are decidedly more compelling. Rounding out the set is an astounding suite of four songs that were taken from the Harlem Festival in 1969, a series of six concerts that drew nearly 100,000 people to New York City’s Central Park and was dubbed the "Black Woodstock." Within this setting, Simone’s uncompromising approach was displayed to its fullest as she defiantly responded to The Beatles’ pacificist anthem Revolution by crafting her own call-to-arms; unleashed the social torment of Four Women with a quiet, controlled fury; celebrated her existence with Ain’t Got No – I Got Life; and proudly embraced her heritage on the hymnal To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. For all of the retrospective collections that have been issued under Simone’s name, few truly capture her essence, which is what makes The Soul of Nina Simone so unique.
The Soul of Nina Simone [DualDisc] is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2005 The Music Box