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Etta James "Mystery Lady" Private Music

March 17, 1994|RANDY LEWIS

For Etta James to record a straight-ahead jazz album saluting Billie Holiday may seem at first like Roseanne Arnold expressing herself through Shakespeare's sonnets.

James, after all, is the Rock And Roll Hall of Famer who built a career belting bawdy R & B rave-ups and powerhouse ballads.

Holiday, on the other hand, excelled at turning exquisitely crafted pop gems by the likes of Irving Berlin and the Gershwins into romantic mini-mysteries whose real power often came from what was left unsaid.

James doesn't try to emulate Holiday's inimitable style. "You've Changed," for instance, is more resigned in James' hands than in Holiday's original, in which the singer sounded almost perplexed at a love that's waned. But when the mood is right, James taps her blues-soul roots, providing an emotional immediacy that's absent from too many technique-happy jazz singers.

Any doubts about whether she has a right to be called a jazz singer can be laid to rest by her masterful phrasing on Holiday's signature "Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be)," and in a confident, behind-the-beat delivery that's perfect for the late-night blues of "Don't Explain."

Pianist Cedar Walton's arrangements range from the simple--solo guitar backing on "Lover Man"--to more intricate charts utilizing the full seven-member combo, as in "(I'm Afraid) The Masquerade is Over."

Tackling the Billie Holiday songbook is a bold step for anyone, at any time. By waiting 40 years into her recording career to take this headlong plunge, James wisely made certain she was fully up to the challenge.

* Etta James performs tonight at 8 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $25. (714) 496-8930.

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