There is no proper way the career of Nina Simone can be summarized by a mere two-CD set. Over the course of roughly 35 years, her brand of steadfast soul music reached into the pockets of gospel, jazz, pop, folk, blues, classical and more. Styles and social climates would shift around her, each bringing new accents to the songs and arrangements she favored. But it was always her voice — that deep, clear and profoundly solemn voice — that triggered the various stylistic charges that fueled her extensive career. So, no, whittling all of that down to two discs wouldn’t begin to do that music justice.
Wisely, an extraordinary new Rhino Records compilation, “The Colpix Singles,” doesn’t even attempt to. Instead, the double-disc set limits itself to some of Simone’s earliest recordings. As the title implies, it is devoted to edits of songs cut between 1959 and 1963 that were fashioned into singles for the Colpix label.
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For die-hard fans of Simone’s music, the appeal here will come from those edits, many of which have been out of circulation since their initial release. But for everyone else, what will fascinate is simply the sustained elegance and subtle assertion of Simone’s singing. “Those qualities surface as soon as the blueprint rock ’n’ roll (not a sound regularly associated with the singer) ignites on the album opening “Chilly Winds Don’t Blow.” From there, surprises abound. The staple spiritual “Children Go Where I Send You” positively swings with a lean piano and rhythm section arrangement while “Summertime” becomes ghostly in an entirely different manner than what we’ve been accustomed to. It’s still blues, but the minor key slant works almost as a modal incantation. Similarly, “Cotton Eyed Joe” is shed of its familiar zest to become a lament both smoky and luxuriant. “Little Liza Jane,” on the other hand, retains its obvious drive even as Simone transforms it into a gust of finger popping, gospel-esque vigor. And those are just the obvious songs.
If there is a tune that best reflects the spirit of “The Colpix Singles,” it’s Simone’s treatment of “Trouble in Mind.” Normally a blues reflection, Simone emphasizes the song’s deceptive sense of hope with an introductory wail followed by a taste of gospel authority steeped in the proud clarity of her singing.
The collection ends just before one of the cornerstone chapters of Simone’s life and career — namely, her place within the Civil Rights Era. Instead, what we have is a detailed look at the conflicted world that prefaced it. Within those borders, Simone saw grief and joy, but addressed both through singing that resonated, even in those early years, with a mix of maturity and weariness. The resulting music, as presented on “The Colpix Singles,” sounds glorious, even if the trouble she already had in mind was heading to a boil.