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Etta Jones: The Best of Etta Jones: The Prestige Singles

Late last year, JazzTimes asked its writers to contribute their highs and lows for 2001. The two extremes have melded into a single, bittersweet memory for me-that of 72-year-old vocalist Etta Jones in her last performances at the Village Vanguard. I knew that she had been gravely ill-it was her second battle with cancer-yet the bandstand proved to be the best medicine. Once she started singing, all the weariness in her body appeared to evaporate. The music was sublime.

Her admirers were incredibly diverse, from Claudia Acu¤a to Cecil Taylor, the latter often a conspicuous presence during her Vanguard runs with bandleader Houston Person. The reason for Jones’ appeal? An elderly woman I encountered at a Flushing Town Hall concert summed it up best: At the conclusion of “What a Wonderful World,” she smiled at her companions and exclaimed, “Child, when she sings it, you believe [it]; every word!”

Jones projected an unrivaled optimism and generosity of spirit. As is obvious from listening to The Best of Etta Jones, her fluid approach and her delightfully penetrating timbre had not changed much in the course of 40 years. Jones began singing professionally with Buddy Johnson and Earl Hines in the 1940s, but she had hit upon lean times (working as a seamstress, elevator operator and, ironically, an album stuffer) before sending an unsolicited demo to Prestige. They signed her immediately. She recorded seven albums for the label between 1960 and ’63.

With a few tracks from each of these albums, The Best of provides an excellent introduction to Jones’ work. Certainly, some of these sessions were better than others-the hit-making Don’t Go to Strangers (1960), for example, being a step above Holler! (1962)-but each had its standout tracks from which to choose (namely the former’s famous title track and the latter’s funky, baritone-driven arrangement of “Nature Boy”). The variety of performance settings is a bonus, from the intimate quartet accompaniment of Lonely and Blue to the bold orchestral settings and commercial big-band flavors of the Oliver Nelson-arranged albums So Warm and From the Heart. With most of the individual discs clocking in at less than 40 minutes, this hour-long collection proves an economical alternative.

Jones recorded frequently for Muse from the late ’70s through the early ’90s. When label boss Joe Fields sold his catalog and started over with High Note, Jones followed him, recording another five albums, including the Grammy-nominated My Buddy. Her final release, Etta Jones Sings Lady Day, recorded in June 2001, finds her in wonderful form in spite of her deteriorating health. Not many people can sing “Fine and Mellow” or “God Bless the Child” without suffering from comparisons to Billie Holiday. But Jones personalizes these classics by intoning countless variations, her style leaning toward R&B. Tunes Holiday recorded earlier in her career, such as “All of Me” and “Them There Eyes,” possess typical Etta spunk. The date comes closer to Jones’ exuberant live performances than any other in her discography.

She will sorely be missed.

Originally Published