Nina Simone was her own gospel, a sinuous force of uncompromising power and righteous beauty. Every time you listen to that voice, so proud and strong that it quivers, you're tempted to renounce faith in everything else, to surrender to her command.
A genre unto herself, Simone bent jazz, pop, and soul to her blues-deep will; as an emissary of civil rights, she both confronted and communed with her audience. Many compilations have tried to encapsulate her breadth and Coltrane-esque pursuit of truth, but the 3CD/1DVD box set To Be Free is the first that truly succeeds. The three CDs allow for a close inspection of her evolution on the Bethlehem, Colpix, Philips, and RCA labels, from Ellington and Gershwin standards to rethinking Dylan and the Bee Gees.
Although there are some conspicuous omissions (no "Sinnerman"?), To Be Free is an embarrassment of riches, including the singer-as-sorcerer classic "I Put a Spell on You," the percussion-and-voice dogfight "No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed," and an 18-minute churchification of George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord." The real gem, however, is the DVD, an Emmy-nominated short film from 1970 that shows Simone in interviews and performance. "I want to go in that den of elegant people with their old ideas and smugness and just drive them insane," she says. Amen!