Etta Jones Don't Go To Strangers
[Remastered RVG Edition] Prestige
Mention Etta Jones to casual followers of the jazz vocal scene, and brace yourself for a quizzical expression in return. Or if the name produces a spark of recognition, wait long enough for the frequent retraction ("Oh, I thought you meant Etta James") before comparing notes. For an artist whose career spanned nearly sixty years and yielded no small number of memorable recordings, Etta Jones remains one of the better kept secrets among major jazz vocalists of the past century. This latest RVG remaster of Jones' most popular recording session sports a pink cover, a hotter mix and more punched-up sound that may encourage some listeners to hang on to their old copies. But if it reduces the number of listeners who are strangers to Etta Jones' work, it will have performed an invaluable service for all who care about the art of jazz singing.
Quite simply, Etta Jones was a once-in-a-lifetime talent arguably deserving mention in the same breath with Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae and Nancy Wilson. The disarming, utter naturalness of her sound, elocution and phrasing places her in a direct line of descent from Billie Holiday, though the influence of Dinah Washington is readily apparent in the vocal strength and resilient spirit she brings to fresh yet always welcome and accessible re- inventions of familiar material.
A throwaway tune like "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" gets a whole new lease on life, acquiring surprising soul and urgency thanks to the singer's displacement of musical and poetic accents along with her expressive use of quarter tones and reshaping of the melody. A potentially mawkish chestnut such as "Something To Remember Me By" receives a melodic-rhythmic face-lift that is alternately playful and poignant without losing touch with the song's simple message of plaintive yearning. On "Bye Bye Blackbird" she not only evokes the complementary relationship between a Lady Day and saxophonist Lester Young: she is the President, making a moving statement out of the fewest notes possible and with scarcely a hint of conscious effort or premeditated design.
Along with Don't Go To Strangers (1960), practically any of Jones' other nine albums recorded for Prestige can be recommended with equal confidence. Frequently she will go to "unlikely" writers such as Rodgers and Hammerstein ("If I Loved You" and "Some Enchanted Evening," Love Shout, 1962) or even formal, "semi-operatic" material ("And This Is My Beloved," So Warm, 1961; "Be My Love," My Mother's Eyes, 1977) and transform it into language so direct, honest and personal a listener is almost ashamed for once assuming such aria-like melodies required the Mario Lanza/Andrea Bocelli treatment.
Although Jones is most often linked with tenor saxophonist Houston Person, who was her musical partner and recording producer for the last twenty-six years of her life, she enjoyed a close association with tenor players right from the start, beginning as a blues belter on recordings with saxophonist Budd Johnson (Etta Jones: 1944-1947, Classics, 1999). Immediately following Don't Go to Strangers was a productive association with saxophonist/composer-arranger Oliver Nelson, who appeared with her on one recording (Something Nice, 1960) and provided striking orchestral arrangements for two more (So Warm; From the Heart, 1962).
Perhaps there's no better example of her affinity with the instrument than her 1962 studio session with boss tenor Gene Ammons, currently available on Lonely And Blue. Her opening chorus on "But Not For Me" effectively serves as a blueprint for Ammons' solo which, in turn, offers the spark of drama the vocalist builds into a flame for her out chorus. "Cool, Cool Daddy" shows off Etta Jones the blues singer (a sharp contrast with Holiday who, contrary to popular assumptions, rarely recorded twelve-bar blues songs), whether making the point through call-response exchanges with the tenor saxophonist or through extended testifying following the instrumentalist's lead.
The supreme moment of communication between the pair is reached on the rarely performed, exquisitely sentimental old-European aria, "If You Are But A Dream." It's a moody, slowly building ascent from questioning the grand illusion of love to embracing it as the sublime realitya journey that would fall short with the least misstep or hint of insincerity. Without so much as a trace of self-conscious irony or less- than-complete surrender to the sentiment of the lyric, Jones carries Ammons with her on a dream-like quest. If "soul" is spirit incarnate, the power of the performance is proof positive of the two generous spirits who created it. It's music like this that keeps dreams alive.
Etta Jones' final recording, released the day of her death, October 16, 2001, was a tribute to Billie Holiday (Sings Lady Day, High Note). But for those listeners familiar with her work, the spirit of Lady Day was present in virtually all of her recordings. In many respects she was a more "accessible" and stable version of Holiday, perhaps not quite as nuanced and complex and not as weighted down by personal and emotional baggage, but with a vocal quality and elocution no less "natural"-sounding than the predecessor's. Like Holiday, hers is a quality as effortless and unforced as the ripening of fruit on the vineor the blossoming of a gardenia. Both singers understood and practiced equally well the principle underlying great popular and jazz singing: the art of artlessness.
At the same time, Jones' projection and technique, rhythmic sense and phrasing, and knowledge of song repertory were always the hallmarks of a singer thoroughly practiced in her craft. Put another way, Jones was to Holiday what saxophonist Sonny Stitt was to Charlie Parkera sonically enhanced, up-close, more accessible version of the original, yet capable of making those of us who had never had the opportunity to hear Parker live feel as though we had tapped into a living tradition.
In the most illuminating piece I've read about Etta, "Remembering Etta," Mathew Bahl states that, unlike other singers, Jones' voice saw little to no change and that, in some respects, her later recordings, primarily produced by Houston Person for Muse and High Note, reveal the singer at her very best. It's true that she retained formidable vocal strength, avoiding the wobbly vibrato of late Fitzgerald, the obvious falsetto break of Vaughan, the shorter and "straighter" tones of McRae, the elocutionary problems of Holiday. But I still feel more confident in recommending Jones' earlier Prestige recordings to the new listenernot just Strangers but Love Shout, Lonely and Blue and, for that matter, any other of her dates for the label.
After 1980 Jones' voice deepened and acquired more body, but at the same time the dues she paid are more noticeable along with some unmistakable strain, regardless of how well she conceals it. On late recordings such as Reverse The Charges (Muse, 1991) there's also a curious, almost "breath- taking" moment that occurs the instant before the voice "grabs"an extra-musical exclamation just prior to the vocal chords setting in motion the frequencies that produce musical pitch. Some listeners will hear it as a highly expressive, dramatic momentan instant of pain followed by the reassuringly powerful sound of the voice. But I know that for other listeners it requires some getting used to.
No such reservations apply to the final recording session, on which Jones does more than honor the memory of Billie Holiday: she literally "channels" Lady Day, producing on Holiday's twelve-bar blues "Fine And Mellow" all of the pain and pathos of a late performance by the tragic diva of Lady In Satin (1958), a recording that many fans of early Holiday choose to ignore. On the other hand, at those times when the line between art and life seems artificial or tenuous at best, and when the listener discovers that music can open up unexplored regions of the heart and mind, Etta Jones' later recordings, no less than Billie Holiday's, can not only stand alongside her early work but be seen as the fitting completion of a remarkable journey. With her undeniably fine and mellow performance of the Holiday blues on Don't Go To Strangers Jones announced her claim to a place among a royal lineage; her recording of the song forty-one years later secures it.
Tracks: Yes Sir, That's My Baby; Don't Go To Strangers; I Love Paris; Fine And Mellow; Where Or When; If I Had You; On The Street Where You live; Something To Remember You By; Bye Bye Blackbird; All The Way.
Personnel: Etta Jones: vocals; Frank Wess: flute, tenor saxophone; Richard Wyands: piano; Skeeter Best: guitar; George Duvivier: bass; Roy Haynes: drums.