Etta James with the Cedar Walton Trio

Reel To Real Recordings/4 stars

SINGAPORE – Jazz devotees tend to be dedicated to the point of obsession, and later generations of music fans have reason to thank them for the seemingly endless supply of bootlegs as demonstrated in this latest example of an archival recording.

The Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore was founded by two fans Vernon L. Welsh and Benny Kearse. It brought in a series of jazz acts to Baltimore’s Famous Ballroom, and Welsh recorded many tapes, one of which is the source for this one night gig.

The concert united singer Etta James with pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Billy Higgins in 1972.

James, whose bluesy belt was delivered with a slightly nasal timbre that recalled Billie Holiday’s idiosyncratic vibe, never quite achieved the star status critics thought she deserved. Listen to her astringent take on You Better Go Now, much more acerbic than Lady Day’s wistfully romantic take, and you hear the distinct edge she brings to her interpretation. She is not cuddly, but there is a vibrant clarity to her singing that strips away superficial pop frills for spine tingling truth.

Pianist Walton is a great match for her gutsy singing, especially on Burt Bacharach’s This Guy’s In Love With You, where they leach any hint of saccharine sentimentality out of this 1968 pop hit, highlighting instead its elegant melody line.

James might deliver a killer imitation of Lady Day on Don’t Go To Strangers, but it is evident from this live set that this singer has a voice all her own.

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