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JAZZ NOTES

Etta James Tones It Down for a Salute to Lady Day

March 18, 1994|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Etta James, a 1993 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has built her four-decade-plus career on such blues and R&B hits as "Tell Mama," "At Last" and "I'd Rather Go Blind."

But James, 57, has long had an affinity for songs recorded by Billie Holiday.

"Billie was cool," James says. "My mother used to play nothing but Billie Holiday."

To document her admiration for Holiday, James has released "Mystery Lady," a collection of 11 torch songs associated with Lady Day. In a plain-spoken, unembellished manner that is a far cry from her typically impassioned blues renditions, James delivers such standards as "The Man I Love," "You've Changed," "Body and Soul" and "Lover Man" with remarkable authenticity and conviction.

The performances on "Mystery Lady" are bolstered by the presence of pianist Cedar Walton--his characteristically natty arrangements set James up ideally. Also on hand is creamy-toned tenorman Red Holloway, who adds several alluring solos.

Despite her years in the blues and R&B trade, James says the album isn't really a stretch. " 'Mystery Lady' really is Etta James. I love these songs. I've been singing them all my life," she says. "And early on, I sang jazz with a group called the Peaches. We sounded like the Hi-Los. We liked Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker."

James performs with her own band tonight at the Strand in Redondo Beach, and Saturday at the Ventura Theatre in Ventura. She says that although she admired vocalists like Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, she never wanted to become a jazz singer.

"Jazz took too much discipline," she says. "You have to come in at the right place, which is different than me singing the blues, where I can sing, 'Oh, baby,' if there's a pause in the melody. With jazz, you better leave that space open, or put in something real cool. I learned that again at this session."

The singer met Holiday just once, when they were both performing in New York on an NBC radio show called "Jazz Plus Blues Equals Soul." James saw Holiday, who was late for the broadcast, being helped through a door by two men. Holiday's hands were incredibly swollen, James says, and when the singing great noticed her staring, she leaned over and said conspiratorially, "Just don't ever let this happen to you."

"The funny thing was, it did happen," James says, referring to her earlier problems with drugs. "Maybe she saw that wildness in my eyes and sensed that I might be that type. Later, when I was on drugs, I often thought about that."

* Etta James plays tonight at 8:30 at the Strand, 1700 S. Pacific Coast Highway, Redondo Beach. Tickets, $25. (310) 316-1700.

* New Gig for Taylor: Pianist Billy Taylor has been named artistic director and host of a new series of broadcasts to be co-produced by National Public Radio and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

The broadcasts, which will be taped in Washington and begin airing on NPR in fall, 1995, are dubbed "Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center." The series is "designed to acquaint listeners with the rich history and diversity of American jazz" and will feature Taylor's trio in performance with guest stars. It will also include conversation and commentary. Frank Wess, Jon Hendricks, Arturo Sandoval, Kenny Burrell and Clark Terry are among the scheduled guest artists.

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