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July/August 2003

Nina Simone
Four Women: The Nina Simone Philips Recordings
Verve

If your appreciation for Nina Simone begins and ends with "My Baby Just Cares For Me," consider Four Women: The Nina Simone Philips Recordings (Verve) essential listening. The timing of the box set's release, arriving just weeks after her death at age 70, is sadly propitious. Originally intended as an appreciation of the singular Simone at the height of her creative power, the four discs now seem more eulogistic. Like any good eulogy, they focuses solely on the dearly departed's positive attributes-the immensity and diversity of her skills as singer, songwriter and social commentator-neatly sidestepping the well-publicized negatives (her notoriously uneven temperament and egotistic indifference to lesser mortals, paying customers chief among them). Having cut her musical teeth at Bethlehem, earned a smidgen of crossover popularity (enough to cement her lifelong aversion to the industry's crasser commercial aspects) with her tremulously feisty "I Loves You, Porgy," and established her uncompromising standards with a superb series of Colpix discs, Simone was ready, willing and able to don her "High Priestess of Soul" mantle when she arrived at Philips in 1964. Over the course of three years, she would deliver seven albums-Nina Simone in Concert, Broadway Blues Ballads, I Put a Spell on You, Pastel Blues, Let It All Out, Wild Is the Wind and High Priestess of Soul-all of which are chronologically assembled here.

Remarkably, much like Ella's Songbook series, Simone's Philips' oeuvre suggests no sense of evolution. She arrived at the label knowing what she would, could and wouldn't do and never veered from her self-ascribed path. She recorded what she wanted, how she wanted, when she wanted-no pandering to popular taste, no sellout covers of the latest jukebox favorites, no thematic cutesiness. She was simultaneously jazz, folk, blues and gospel. The lines crossed and blurred. You either got it or you didn't. She didn't care. As a storyteller, she rivaled Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughan. As a social barometer and advocate for African-American rights and freedoms, Simone was mirrored only by Billie Holiday in the depth of her commitment and passion to the causes. And so, spread across the 75 tracks that fill this set, you hear the eager delicacy of Rogers and Hammerstein's "Something Wonderful" alongside the soul-stirring majesty of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood"; the sensuous self-sufficiency of Cole Porter's "The Laziest Gal in Town" juxtaposed with the soaring heartbreak of "Don't Smoke in Bed"; the peppery cynicism of "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" aligned with the fevered passion of "Nearer Blessed Lord." Loudest you hear the pent-up anger of "Mississippi Goddam," the chilling brutality of "Strange Fruit" and, most powerfully of all, the courageous determination of "Four Women." Together her Philips sides stand as appropriately unadorned testament to a woman who, to borrow a line from the Village Voice, "gave 'em hell to the end."

Originally published in July/August 2003
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