There's no question that Nina Simone is richly deserving of a three-CD (plus one DVD), 51-song box set such as To Be Free. From the late '50s until her death, she was one of the great unclassifiable pop singers of the 20th century, and if her voluminous recording career was erratic, the first 15 years at any rate had many highlights. Any complaint about this particular package has more to do with the balance of eras represented than the quality of the contents, which is generally very good. If one is to criticize, however, it's that it does seem heavily weighted toward her 1967-1973 recordings for RCA, which take up about two-thirds of the three audio discs. Perhaps that's because it's on the RCA/Legacy label, but certainly a good case could be made that her pre-1967 recordings for a variety of other companies (most often Philips) were worthy of greater representation. To focus on the positives, however, most of disc one does include strong pre-RCA tracks from the first decade of her recording career, including some of her best-known classics of the time, like "My Baby Just Cares for Me," "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," "See-Line Woman," "I Put a Spell on You," and "Four Women." While the RCA era arguably saw her move too much into pop-oriented production on occasion and too many covers of pop/rock hits, the selections from that era are chosen with intelligence, including a good number of live tracks. The two post-1973 cuts -- one from 1978 and one from her final proper album, 1993's A Single Woman -- seem like afterthoughts to ensure that most of her career was covered in some way, but that's justifiable considering that the last three decades of her life saw little in the way of noteworthy recordings.
Though there's not much in the way of rarities, the set also does contain half a dozen previously unreleased live tracks of merit; four songs from the hard-to-find album A Very Rare Evening, recorded live in Germany in April 1969; and a couple (a live cover of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" and an alternate version of "Ain't Got No -- I Got Life") that make their first U.S. appearance. The most tantalizing item for serious Simone fans is the DVD of a 1970 television special, though it turns out to be a little less exciting than one might have hoped. Lasting just 23 minutes, it intersperses scenes of her recording in the studio and performing on-stage (most of the songs being fragments, highlighted by a complete live version of "Go to Hell") with interview snippets in which Simone offers basic comments on the rewards and difficulties of being a creative musician. Still, in all this is a very good box set illustrating Simone's facility at jumping between and blending numerous genres, including soul, pop, rock, jazz, Broadway, classical, and even (on the previously unissued 1973 live performance "Nina") world fusion music of sorts with backing by sitar and kalimba. Just don't necessarily take it as a summation of all her greatest work, with much more from the pre-1967 period in particular thankfully available to investigate on other CDs. ~ Richie Unterberger