Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles (CD)
Today, Nina Simone's musical career is best remember for her hard-leftist, black identity and how she put it into music. Instead of creating manifestos and pamphlets, her songs were fiery statements against the expectations of a black woman in the '60s. But her political reawakening and radical transformation almost overshadows the early part of her career where her songs were quieter, sparser, and more romantic. Although it's missing the politics of some of her most famous works, Mood Indigo is a perfect compilation of the early part of her career. Her early singles are so subtle and beautiful, but there's something underneath it all with her gorgeous voice and experimental directions that does anticipate her later career. But it's so subversive that you might not notice it on first listen. With a classic single like the titular "Mood Indigo," the classic bop rhythm with the hopping bass and tapping drums is at its most classic and iconic sounding, but her piano work is so low-key and light, you might even ignore how bouncy and natural it comes off. The last verse comes in with some proto-avant garde rhythms that seems to catch a bit of the experimental frontiers of jazz being pushed by artists like Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. The melody is classic Duke Ellington, but Nina Simone transforms it into her song. "African Mailman" perfectly belongs in the pantheon of great jazz tracks influence by the Afro-Cuban rhythms that were infiltrating music in the '60s. Just like Herbie Hancock's seminal "Watermelon Man" was influenced by the sounds of New York street vendors, Simone's piano instrumental draws from the modernism of urban life and the deep roots of ethnic culture she heard and saw on the streets. The way it starts off with dissonant harmonies that suddenly rises up into a Latin beat is bound to catch you off guard. It's catchy and shows off the absolute best of her piano playing and that balance she maintains between high-minded jazz and the roots of R&B. If you still have a very one-dimentional idea of who Nina Simone was and what her music sounded like, this compilation is bound to make you reconsider her career. It's the perfect overview of Nina Simone's early career as it captures in brief three-minute glimpses perfect examples of how she led to the redefinition of jazz while still being commercial enough for the uninitiated. And even if you're well versed in her work, it's wonderful to get the single edits of some of her best songs!