Record Review - 2 September 05 2001

Her most ardent fans probably wish she'd stick with the rocking R&B on which she stakes her reputation as Matriarch of the Blues (also the title of her 2000 album, comprised of sassy covers from Dylan, the Stones and Creedence), but Etta James has never shied away from jazzy, (some might gripe) loungy ballads. Certainly 1960's ubiquitous, orchestrated "At Last" put her on more bedroom stereos than any other female blues belter. And seeing as the eclectic vocalist has released a Grammy-winning Billie Holiday tribute, along with two albums of jazz-driven fare over the last five years, this music is as much a part of the James persona as her better-known raunchy side.

But what's really remarkable on Blue Gardenia is how skillfully she knocks her approach down a notch while pumping the pain from harrowing years of tough living into these '40s and '50s standards. No matter how ingrained these hoary classics are in the fabric of American songcraft, James infuses a grit and bite not really evident in interpretations by less rootsy singers of the Sinatra/Bennett persuasion. Even the redoubtable Joe Cocker doesn't tear into "Cry Me a River" with as much passionate resignation.

Cedar Walton's classy, acoustic accompaniment and uncluttered arrangements spotlight James' emotionally charged readings. While the slow tempos are repetitive over the disc's nearly 70 minutes, and you keep thinking (hoping?) that Etta will let loose on the next song (that never happens), her phenomenal pipes and restrained yet wrenching delivery keep Blue Gardenia red hot.

Etta James performs at EarthLink Live Fri., Sept. 7.??