More than Four Women
In the song-drama "Four Women," one of several Nina Simone originals on this career overview released shortly after she died in 2003, at age seventy, the classically trained pianist and singer assumes the identities of four black female archetypes—the wise, long-suffering laborer, the whore, the militant, and the confused child of mixed-race parents. Each is distinct, stepping out of a different period novel. Through changes in inflection and dialect, Simone forces her listeners to confront those characters, feel their humanity, sense their struggles. By the time the song ends, you know about more than just four isolated women; you know about womanhood and pride, dignity and the tangled politics of identity and race.
It's always that way with Simone: Whether she's singing some overworked show tune or one of her own cautionary essays about struggle ("To Be Young, Gifted, and Black," a bona fide standard, is included here), there is deep perspective in her phrasing, some connection to life beyond the velvet banquette. She rarely throws herself completely into extremes like "happy" or "sad"—hers is complex music in the key of bittersweet, complete with the messier aspects that jazz divas sometimes gloss over. Her love songs, like the wrenching "I Loves You Porgy," have the weary, worn-down countenance of the soldier returning from violent battle; her protest songs ("Mississippi Goddam" is the most famous) are delivered with a romantic's blue-sky idealism.
Simone's most memorable material carries the core truths of blues and gospel, yet she's always stretching beyond those roots—she incorporates the fevered repetitions of '60s soul and the open hurt of Billie Holiday (there's a harrowing, almost disgusted treatment of "Strange Fruit" here). As she evolved, she became a high priestess of nuance who, by slipping traces of anger and elation and lust and frustration into the margins, provided meanings and implications that weren't there before.