This is a sampler, not in the anthology sense but the chocolate box sense. There are bitter tastest, a creamy voice – and there’s enough sweetness for anybody. When Etta Jones hit top 40 with 1960’s “Don’t Go to Strangers’, Prestige gave her budgets most of their artists never saw – this shows their money was well-spent. In three settings (quartet, horns, and strings) Etta graces well-picked songs (both standards and new friends) with her sassy tone and and charming lilt. A chocolate box, yes – in the shape of a heart.
The arranger is Oliver Nelson. He did her first string album, So Warm, and this is no less shining. In a moment it grabs you: loping guitar on the right speaker, towering strings to the left. Etta sings the hard words with a smile in her voice, but the meaning is felt. The seamless strings rise, Etta sings “Then suddenly love dies – the story ends”, and they go sour. The break has a marvelous bit where violins soar and cello groan. This captures it nicely: sad words, happy tune, and Etta respects both sides.
Wally Richardson twangs gently “by the Bend of the River”; his bit is similar in “Just Friends”, but the bouncy tune puts it in a different light. Etta is ecstatic as she plays with the warm lyrics (“On a soft balmy June night/ In the shimmering moonlight...”) In her hands a forgotten trifle is an invitation to love, and you’re grateful she introduced you to this song. In contrast, “Makin’ Whoopee” is more than familiar: in the wrong hands this sounds corny. These are not the wrong hands. She throws in a bushel of irony, and the horns get funky, underscoring the way she says “ambitious” and “When you make whoopee”.
“You Came a Long Way from St. Louis” is part rock (the charts hint “Lucille” and “One Mint Julep”) and part gentle swing. Etta is pure Etta, and the cynicism she shows is match by the winking chart by Missourian Nelson. Less elaborate but very effective is “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”, where guitar and piano ring in unison. Lloyd Mayers has a nice bluesy solo, but here the group matters, and so does Etta: she sings it simply, gently – perfectly. It’s the peak of her happiness, which sets up what follows.
“I’ll Never Be Free” is easily the best string number. The intricate chart sets violins against cellos (check out the classical opening), and Richardson on the right speaker. Etta is her most aching, her desperate confession “Each kiss I gave to you/ Made me a slave to you” is felt as it is heard. The strings get sugary at the break, leading to guitar blues and Etta in deep echo. And as she nears, the strings suddenly get tough and lead her out.
With a high wail and tears in her voice (it really sounds that way at the end) Etta discovers “The Masquerade is Over.” The swingin’ horns don’t cheer her at all – the jauntier they get, the sadder she gets. Beyond singing, this is great acting – which is crucial to much of the best singing. While “Look for the Silver Lining” is associated with Chet Baker and his gentle voice, Etta belts it with a sensuous touch – even some sadness at points; maybe the advice hasn’t worked out for the singer. “There Goes My Heart” blends pop strings with a deep vocal and deeper depression. “There goes my heart – and here am I!” The strings are light; the heart is heavy. The acting is splendid – and hear that lonely violin at the very end. The sad songs take the day, but with Etta’s voice (a smile is never too far away), it’s a good kind of sad!