Remembering Etta Jones
In many ways, her Muse catalog represents the core of Jones's body of work. While Prestige had tried to squeeze product out of Jones, Muse allowed her to take her time. Her records for the Muse tend to follow a certain pattern. They present Jones singing standards and demi-blues accompanied by Person as the featured soloist and a trio occasionally augmented by percussion or vibes.
These sets were very much an embodiment of Jones's sensibilities as a singer, as well as a reflection of the kinds of performances she was giving in nightclubs and concerts. Jones continued to make the same kinds of records throughout the 1980s with Love Me With All Your Heart (1983), Fine and Mellow (1986), I'll Be Seeing You (1987) and Sugar (1989). While these records were not especially varied as a whole, each individual album, taken on its own terms, was very good.
However, by 1991 Jones and Person recognized a need to shake things up a bit. Lacking the budget for a sea of strings or a gaggle of horns, Person instead chose to recruit a band composed of young musicians. When Jones stepped into the recording studio with Benny Green (piano), Christian McBride (bass), Winard Harper (drums) and Philip Harper (trumpet), she found herself working with musicians who had not even been born when she recorded "Don't Go to Strangers." The injection of fresh blood was exactly what the singer needed. The resulting album, Reverse the Charges, finds Jones sounding fully engaged and re-energized and is worth seeking out just to hear the irresistible opening track, "Ma, He's Making Eyes at Me."
The same band formed the core of At Last, which featured some of Jones's finest latter day ballad singing. Coincidentally, at around the same time, the R&B legend and sometime jazz singer Etta James recorded a version of "Don't Go to Strangers." "At Last," of course, had been a big hit for James at around the same time "Don't Got to Strangers" had been a hit for Jones. Fans often confused the two Ettas, and, as a result, both women chose to wait over three decades before recording the other's theme song.
In 1994, Jones ventured into the studio to record the most intimate album of her career, a series of duets with pianist Benny Green. Muse did not release My Gentleman Friend until 1996, and it would turn out to be the last Etta Jones record released on the label. It was a fitting end to an impressive and impressively consistent string of records.
Officially Muse had closed its doors and sold its catalog to 32 Records. Practically, label owner Joe Fields had simply reopened Muse under a new name, HighNote (and its sister label, Savant). Yet, intentionally or not, Etta Jones and Houston Person gave these final series of records for HighNote a unique character that sets them apart from the Muse sets.
Jones's CDs for HighNote will very likely stand the test of time as some of her most profoundly personal work. Each of her final records served as something of a musical love letter. The Melody Lingers On (1996) was a tribute to departed singers who had influenced Jones professionally and personally. Dinah Washington, Nat Cole, Billy Eckstine, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald were among the singers to whom she paid her respects. The following year, she recorded My Buddy, a tribute to the bandleader and songwriter Buddy Johnson, who had given Jones her big break some 54 years earlier.
In 1999, she recorded All the Way, a collection of songs with lyrics by Sammy Cahn. Jones had always cited Cahn as her favorite lyricist, and "All the Way" was another one of those songs that she had carried with her throughout her long career. Easy Living, recorded in 2000, was partly a return to the kind of themeless sets Jones had made for Muse. However, the record was really a reunion with pianist Richard Wyands, who had accompanied Jones four decades earlier on Don't Go to Strangers.
Fittingly, Jones's career came to an end much as it beganwith the music of Billie Holiday. From the stomping authority of "All of Me" to the fragile beauty of "You Better Go Now," Etta Jones Sings the Songs of Lady Day was obviously a labor of love. The CD was recorded on June 21, 2001, exactly 41 years to the day after Jones recorded Don't Go to Strangers, and, sadly enough, was released on October 16, 2001, the day she passed away.
Over the last 35 years, much of Etta Jones's career passed below the radar of the jazz press. Other musicians frequented the cover of Down Beat or lingered on Billboard's jazz chart. Still, in her final years, Jones had begun to earn some of the honors and tributes she so richly deserved including the Eubie Blake Jazz Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Women in Jazz Foundation. It was especially cheering to see her turn up as a special guest on CDs by jazz singers Jeanie Bryson and Vanessa Rubina well deserved sign of respect from the younger generation.