"This is Nina’s greatest work on one album which roams across all of popular song, from show-tunes to jazz and blues to dark protest and delves deep into the reservoir of musical history and memory." -from the Metro Music promotional website
Many aspire to become African-American divas, but Nina Simone defined the term. Sure, Aretha Franklin and others helped, but it's possible none were as multi-talented and consistently inspiring as Nina Simone. Her inimitable larger-than-life style embodied blues, jazz, soul, gospel, Broadway and popular forms.
Born with the name Eunice Waymon in 1933, she changed her name in the mid-50s, and only recently died in 2003. Her life-journey began in North Carolina and ended in Carry-le-Rouet, France. In-between, she was all over the map: literally, musically, politically, and financially.
Nina: The Essential Nina Simone is a scattered compilation, much less representative than it could be. Yet, there are no bad songs here. The collection includes certified standards like Ellingtonian "Mood Indigo," "Love Me of Leave Me", "Little Girl Blue," and Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy." There are two beloved traditionals (with fairly nontraditional arrangements,) "He's Got the Whole World In His Hand," and "House of the Rising Sun," plus five Simone originals.
Way back in 1959 "I Loves You, Porgy" was Simone's only official top-40 hit of her career, but the song most familiar to younger audiences is "My Baby Just Cares For Me" due to the Chanel No.5 TV ad campaign in 1987. The resulting late-career boost surprised Simone as much as anyone.
"Love Me or Leave Me," based on a 1930s Broadway hit tune, features Simone's unmistakable vocal and Baroque-boogie piano stylings. "Little Girl Blue" begins as a familiar nursery rhyme and casually morphs into the Rogers & Hart standard. "Plain Gold Ring" showcases Simone's vocal over a powerful rhythm section: stark and sad, steady as a trance. "Ain't No Use" is a great example of her blues prowess. Simone always knew exactly how to communicate deep emotions. Her original protest songs "Mississippi Goddam" and "Four Women" provide further examples of this truth.
Simone fans agree much of her best material was issued on Phillips throughout the 1960s. Nina: The Essential Nina Simone sadly lacks those classics, though it features live versions of some. You get the feeling Metro Music must have been denied licenses for the originals. Particularly disappointing exclusions include civil rights anthems "Old Jim Crow," "Young, Gifted & Black," "I Put a Spell on You" (which inspired the Beatles' song "Michelle,") and the salubrious "Just In Time."
Most reviewers malign the inclusion of two tracks from 1985 (there's a good reason they're at the end.) There is no doubt the glossy production style sounds more outdated than her familiar hits from the 50s and 60s. Even so, "I Sing Just To Know That I'm Alive" and "Fodder on Her Wings" showcase the diva's undiminished cultural relevance decades after her peak of fame. It's too bad so many "fans" would prefer their idols burn-out and die young.
For her part, famed music writer Lucy O'Brien adds interest to the otherwise spare liner notes. Jazz collectors are a bit spoiled by an abundance of high-quality reissues. If you have such expectations, you'll be disappointed by the lack of supporting details such as musicians, release dates, and historical context.
All nit-picking aside, Nina Simone was the real deal, a rare, fully-developed, self-contained artistic package. Since you can hardly go wrong, Nina: The Essential Nina Simone is a sufficient starting point. Essential? Perhaps, but no more so than any Nina Simone collection. It may be the first Nina Simone CD you purchase, but it should not be your last.
-David Seymour is a jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.