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Etta James has been one of the foremost R & B and blues singer this country has produced. She has also demonstrated on many occasions that she can easily bring her hard charging style successfully to standards and traditional pop tunes, especially those to which she readily adapts her special singing style. Over the years, the voice has coarsened and the delivery mellowed a bit. But she can still hit you with that pain and anguish that have characterized her performance since she started working in Doo-Wop and R & B in 1955. This pain and anguish isn't some affectation, it comes from a life which has had more than a share of tragedy. This, her new release, is another set of standard, classic and R & B. One of the prime examples of the latter "This Bitter Earth" was popularized by Dinah Washington and then later picked up by Aretha Franklin and made part of her repertoire.
James is joined on this album by a sterling group of veteran jazz men. The constant is the rhythm section of the inimitable Cedar Walton on piano, bassist Tony Dumas, Ralph Pendland on drums and the fine work of Josh Sklair on guitar. James works with them on "Blue Gardenia", where she is joined by her mother. For most tracks, a horn section is added which includes Red Holloway, George Bohannon and Ronnie Buttacavoli. The larger group shows up on such cuts as "In My Solitude" which features one of Holloway's patented soulful tenor solos. The horn section sounds somewhat distant which raises the question of whether they were added after James cut the album with her rhythm section. While the bulk of the tunes are ballad standards, James takes the listener back to her roots with "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying".
James may have slowed a bit when it comes to technical skills. But the fervency, the soul and the passion not only are still there, but have grown keener with age. This is an album of more than an hour of from the heart singing by one of the great ones and is recommended.
As a songwriter and vocalist, I love jazz for the experience of being in the center of intense creativity. It is the most potent form of music for keeping the artist and the audience in the 'now. Being in the moment is essential for humans, and we need help in learning how to do that. As a songwriter, I need the depth of musicality that jazz voicings can give my stories. My songs seem light and whimsical, but the message is not.
I met my main collaborator, Mark Fitzgibbon, at one of his gigs. I needed to do my first original album, and his playing was masterful, robust, and beautiful. At the time, I didn't realize how suited we were as a team. We're onto our 4rth album together.
My advice to new listeners is to listen to a really clear and simple version of a song so you can then hear what the musicians are doing and enjoy their creativity and musicality. Also, you have to see jazz live to appreciate it fully. You'll never feel it the same way listening to a CD or online. You need the vibration to go through your body to really get it!
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