jazz standards in a smoky alto

Time After Time (Private Music)
Etta James

By Allen Howie

Most artists hate to be pigeonholed into a specific category, but few have worked harder to avoid it than Etta James. From her early rhythm-and-blues sides like "Roll with Me Henry" (a song she wrote with two friends at age 15) to her classic blues/soul output for Chicago's Chess Records (nicely compiled on Chess' two-disc retrospective, The Essential Etta James) and her most recent album, Mystery Lady, a tribute to Billie Holiday for which she won the "Best Jazz Vocal" Grammy, James has carved out a niche that cuts across musical styles.

Her newest release, Time After Time, follows her Lady Day salute with another collection of jazz standards and makes a perfect companion piece to that earlier album. Backed by a superb quartet (Cedar Walton on piano, John Clayton on bass, Paul Humphrey on drums and Josh Sklair on guitar), plus an assortment of horn players, James settles into these songs with versions that, if not definitive, will certainly pose a challenge for the next singer who comes along.

Unlike Holiday, whom she adored, James has a deep, smoky alto, a voice steeped in the blues, one that gets right to the heart of a song. "My Funny Valentine" is a perfect example; her melancholy vocal is matched by Ronnie Guttacavoli's languid flugelhorn solo.

What's clear is that James has lived with these songs. Whether taking on "Don't Go to Strangers" (a song which ironically was a jazz hit for Etta Jones), turning in a sultry "Teach Me Tonight," giving a light touch to "Love Is Here to Stay" or easing into a churchy moan during "Willow Weep for Me," Iames brings an earthy elegance to the dozen tunes appearing here. With impeccable arrangements by Walton and a delightfully diverse song selection, Time After Time leaves James' stamp on jazz while proving yet again that her muse is as eclectic as it is enduring.