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Etta James: The Dreamer

Christopher Loudon's review of Etta James' final CD, from the latest issue of JazzTimes

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Etta James insists that, as a result of increasingly poor health, this will be her final studio album. If so, she’s going out with a growl, not a whimper. More than a half-century has passed since her seismic “At Last,” and almost all of James’ soaring, searing power is gone. But her majestic authority isn’t so much diminished as recalibrated, resulting in a gutsy, gravelly sound that suggests roads well traveled.

Rare is the 73-year-old who can successfully navigate the flirtatious funk of King Floyd’s pulsating “Groove Me,” but James invades it with slinky, scorching arousal. She maintains the fever on a sweet ‘n’ salty “Champagne & Wine,” and again dips into the Otis Redding songbook for a scorched “Cigarettes & Coffee” that, in its pungently fervent examination of deep, late-night satisfaction, rivals anything in her vast catalog. It is the album’s climactic track, though others-including a gorgeously mellow “Misty Blue” and a blazing “Too Tired”-are near-equally exceptional. Most unexpected is a wailing “Welcome to the Jungle” that is, with its predatory grit, as arresting as the Guns N’ Roses original.

James closes with a stunning “Let Me Down Easy.” As the pass-the-torch anthem unwinds, she sings of giving credit where credit is due and reminds us, “I’ve been so good to you.” It is, perhaps, a bittersweet exit, but one befitting so sage a legend.

Originally Published