Some artists spend years finding their way through the record-making process, learning how to make their music communicate on tape. But from the first moment Nina Simone sat down at the piano at New York City's Belltone Studios in December 1958, she clearly knew exactly what she wanted to do. And her instincts were flawless -- Simone followed many creative paths over the course of her career, but her first sessions for Bethlehem Records were the work of a gifted and supremely confident artist, one whose craft was superb and whose style was striking and individual. In a single day, Simone cut 14 songs that sealed her reputation as one of the top jazz artists of her day, playing a set that wove the melodic and technical precision of classical music with the emotional honesty of blues. While 11 of the tracks would appear on Simone's first album (alternately titled Nina Simone and Little Girl Blue) and would go on to pop up on countless compilations and budget-price reissues after the Bethlehem catalog was sold, all 14 songs were issued on singles, and those original discs are the basis of the 2018 collection Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles. Sequenced in the order the 45s were released and remastered to make the most of the warm, well-detailed audio, Mood Indigo is the best and most caring presentation of this material to date. While the sequence may have been determined by the order of the singles, the flow of the material is admirable, and the minimal production captures Simone in her element without needless clutter. Several tracks feature accompaniment from bassist Jimmy Bond and drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath, but even performing solo Simone's piano and vocals sound full-bodied and orchestral, an ideal marriage of imagination and technique, and her vocals sound natural and unforced but communicate with force and ardor. Her performances of "Porgy (I Loves You Porgy)" and "Don't Smoke in Bed" are outstanding examples of the art of interpretive singing, while "African Mailman" and "Central Park Blues" make it clear she already had a knack for melodic invention that was second to none. Mood Indigo documents the first steps in a long and remarkable career, but it delivers with the skill, assurance, and invention of a seasoned veteran, and 60 years after it was recorded, this music is as deeply rewarding and pleasurable as ever.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming