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08/02/11

Etta Jones
The Way We Were
HighNote Records

Though never anywhere near as celebrated as Billie Holiday and Lester Young, the team of Etta Jones and Houston Person was a sublimely simpatico pairing of vocalist and sax virtuoso. This 12-track date, captured live at Cleveland’s Tri-C Jazz Festival in April 2000, barely a year before Jones’ death at 72, represents the pinnacle of their three-decade professional union. Shades of Holiday have always been evident in Jones’ delivery, and grew more pronounced over the years. But here the septuagenarian singer more strongly suggests the late-career magnificence of Maxine Sullivan. As with the elder Sullivan, there is a seasoned easiness about Jones, a sense of sagacious comfort that is heightened by Person’s loyal presence.

The hour-long set opens with just Person and sidemen warming up the appreciative crowd with a lively quartet of tunes that ranges from the hushed wistfulness of the title track to a blistering “Deed I Do.” Jones enters on a Person wail and settles into a “Fine and Mellow” more sassy than submissive, complete with a spot-on Holiday imitation. Her signature tune, “Don’t Go to Strangers,” though singularly affecting when she originally recorded it in 1960, is even more touching when delivered with discerning maturity. She mirrors Louis Armstrong’s childlike elation on “What a Wonderful World,” unravels a marvelously free-spirited “I Could Have Danced All Night” and closes with a cozy “I’ll Be Seeing You” that, in hindsight, seems a lovely epitaph to her brilliant, if never fully appreciated, career.

Originally published in July/August 2011
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