Etta James has been busy in the studio of late. Hot on the heels of the acclaimed "Matriarch of the Blues," comes "Blue Gardenia" which sees James tackling a set of chestnuts dating from the 1930's through to the 1950's. Although it may be more jazz oriented than you might have expected, the end result simply oozes class.
From the moment the album opens with "This Bitter Earth," you know it is time to pour yourself a drink then kick back and relax for the next hour or so. The album may be made up solely of cover versions, but the James imprint appears on all of the tracks. Indeed, James has previously done this sort of thing to great effect, notably with the Glenn Miller tune "At Last."
All of the tracks may not be familiar to blues listeners, but there are enough reference points to arouse initial curiosity, and once you have heard one or two tracks, you are hooked. The arrangements by pianist Cedar Walton are as lush as a pile carpet, especially on tracks like "These Foolish Things" which follows an excellent rendition of "These Foolish Things" where the band is stripped back to guitar, voice, trumpet, and light percussion. The band (which includes Red Holloway on sax) are excellent throughout, showing themselves to be perfectly attuned to James' way of doing things.
The album proves that James is a truly great singer. It seems that there is no style that she cannot tackle with the greatest of ease. When she takes on Billie Holiday's "My Man," you cannot fail to be impressed, and it is a nice touch that she shares the vocals on the closing title track with her mother, Dorothy Leatherwood.
"Blue Gardenia" merely serves to confirm what "Matriarch of the Blues" had already suggested, i.e., that Etta James is still very much at the peak of her powers. James fans will buy this one anyway, but there may be a number of jazz fans who will also be tempted to dip their toe in the water. Both will be well rewarded, because "Blue Gardenia" is, without doubt, one of the classiest albums of the year.
This review is copyright © 2001 by Gordon Baxter, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.