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Holiday Gift Guide Reviews: Etta James and Sarah Vaughan, “Complete Albums Collections”

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Etta James - Complete Private Rock BoxEtta James and Sarah Vaughan: by any and all accounts, two formidable women of song.  Now, these late legends are both receiving the deluxe treatment from Legacy Recordings on two box sets as part of the Complete Albums series.

Though Etta James’ most enduring recordings were made during her sixteen years (1960-1976) at Chess Records, including her oft-imitated but never-topped perennial “At Last,” the former Jamesetta Hawkins recorded for over fifty years in a variety of genres for a variety of labels.  Modern, Warner Bros., Elektra, Island, Fantasy, RCA, Verve: tenures with all of those labels yielded memorable music from the woman dubbed the Matriarch of the Blues. But one of James’ most lasting label affiliations was with Private Music, where she remained for roughly a decade between 1994 and 2003.  At Private, James explored two parallel artistic avenues, recording in both the idioms of jazz and blues/R&B.  With Legacy’s The Complete Private Music Blues, Rock ‘n’ Soul Albums Collection box set (88691 90589 2), a line of demarcation has been drawn between James’ two differing styles explored at the label.  The box collects seven albums in which she brings her life experience to songs by titans of all three named genres: blues (Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson), rock (Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Bob Dylan) and soul (Otis Redding, Al Green), and everything in between.  A future box set will likely collect the remainder of James’ Private recordings including her acclaimed sets of popular and jazz standards.  But this 7-CD box (containing two Grammy Award-winning discs) makes a compelling case that this elder stateswoman of music didn’t lose any of the fire or adventurous spirit that marked her incendiary tenure with Chess.

How to separate Etta James’ turbulent personal life from the music she created?  Indeed, her third Private studio album (and the first included in this box set), 1997’s Love’s Been Rough on Me, has a number of song titles that would apply in an autobiographical sense: not just “Love’s Been Rough on Me” itself, but also “Cry Like a Rainy Day,” “Don’t Touch Me,” “If I Had Any Pride Left at All.”  Even the last album in this set, the “bonus disc” Live from San Francisco (recorded 1981, released 1994), finds Eagles favorite “Take It to the Limit” recast soulfully by a singer who took life to the absolute limits for as long as she possibly could.

The blues form figured prominently even in the titles of these torrid albums: Life, Love and the Blues (a holy trinity if there ever was one for Ms. Etta James), Matriarch of the Blues, Blues to the Bone.  James may have been exorcising her considerable demons in song, but she did so with power, dignity and control.  She even self-produced or co-produced more than half of the albums here.  On the first album in this box to be recorded, the 1981-vintage Live from San Francisco, she imbues that Glenn Frey/Don Henley hit with more fire than the California cowboys likely ever imagined, growling its familiar words.  There’s also the opportunity here to compare that 1981 concert to a 2001 Hollywood gig preserved on Burnin’ Down the House.  With her Roots Band, James covers some of the same songs, bringing another twenty years’ of life experience to Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and Ellington Jordan and Billy Foster’s “I’d Rather Go Blind.”  She also revisits “At Last” in 2001, older and wiser, and with a certain amount of affection.  (She sounds grateful and without judgment when she introduces the standard with a simple “Every time somebody gets married, they say, ‘Sing ‘At Last.’”  The audience applauds when she complies, naturally.)

Etta James BoxThroughout the albums collected on the box, James connects with songs both expected and out of left field.  So comfortable in so many genres, she melds Rodgers and Hart to Al Green in an epic medley from Burnin’ Down the House of the Reverend Al’s “Take Me to the River” and “Love and Happiness” with the venerated Broadway team’s “My Funny Valentine.”  One of the most diverse LPs here, 2000’s Matriarch of the Blues, is also the most rocking.  It brings sassy, brassy southern soul to Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody,” another finely-chosen selection for an artist intimately acquainted with both the devil and the Lord, as the song goes.  In her hands, the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” loses its disco sheen, its famous riff reinterpreted by a smoking horn section and Mick Jagger’s “woo-hoo-hoo” squeal reinvented as a guttural “Whoa-oh-oh.”  Surely the Glimmer Twins were pleased with their heroine’s recording.  Another rock legend, John Fogerty, gets the Etta treatment with her funky take on his “Born on the Bayou.”

In a decidedly less contemporary vein is 2004’s Blues to the Bone, with songs from Willie Dixon, of course, plus Robert Johnson (“Dust My Broom”) Jimmy Reed (“Hush, Hush”), Elmore James (“The Sky is Crying”) and one-time Chess labelmate Howlin’ Wolf (“Smokestack Lightnin’”).  The bands were generally small, tight, and sympathetic to each particular album’s requirements; on Blues to the Bone, the arrangements are stripped-down and no horn section is present.  Somewhere between these two extremes is Life, Love and the Blues (1998), with Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” (here, “Hoochie Coochie Gal”) and “Spoonful” sitting comfortably alongside songs by classic southern soul men including Joe Tex, Brook Benton, William Bell and Al Green.  The most adventurous choice, though, hails from Detroit: Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).”

There’s more on Etta, plus a look at Sarah Vaughan’s Complete Columbia Albums box set, once you hit the jump!

These seven albums represent the sound of a fearless artist with nothing to prove.  Etta James’ gruff contralto only became deeper and more deeply expressive as she grew older, and this lived-in quality served her well at Private Music.  Following her years at Private, she only recorded two further studio LPs, both of which followed the same template that had served her so well there.  2006’s RCA Victor album All the Way took in songs by John Lennon, Prince and Marvin Gaye alongside those by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein, Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, and Bob Telson.  2011’s Verve Forecast farewell The Dreamer took in tracks from Otis Redding, King Floyd, Ray Charles and…Axl Rose?!?  Yes, Etta James was a dreamer, but also a defiantly original artist who could bring gravity to the simplest song, and direct emotional simplicity to the most grave.  The Complete Private Music Blues, Rock ‘n’ Soul Albums Collection is a worthy place to begin exploring her late-career renaissance.

Sarah Vaughan Box CoverIf the Etta James collection is rather logically assembled, the Complete Columbia Albums of Sarah Vaughan (88691 90587 2) is an oddity.  It’s not odd due to the music, which is some of the most thrilling ever committed by a jazz or vocal pop singer to vinyl.  No, it’s odd because Vaughan’s initial and most memorable stint at Columbia (1949-1953) was in the infancy of the LP, and the lion’s share of her recordings for the label were 78 or 45 RPM singles, not albums.  It’s odder still because the slim, 4-CD box features two discs from that storied period in which Vaughan melded jazz, blues and traditional pop into something uniquely “Sassy,” and two discs from years later, in the 1980s, with the artist in wholly different settings.  In any era or style, though, that voice which stands along Ella’s and Billie’s remains singular.

The box set’s two Columbia long-players After Hours and In Hi-Fi both hail from 1955, long after Vaughan had departed the label.  After Hours and In Hi-Fi were drawn from disparate recording sessions.  The former emphasized lush orchestral pop while the latter focused on jazz, with Vaughan accompanied by smaller groups.  After Hours, the first of three different Vaughan LPs with that title, included selections recorded during the whole span of Vaughan’s time at the label with the bands of Paul Weston, Percy Faith, Joe Lippman, Norman Leyden and Hugo Winterhalter.  If its nature (existing singles compiled on an LP) makes it a makeshift concept album, it’s still one hell of a set.  Its dark, smoky tone hardly sets a mood as Vaughan applies her jazz and big band-trained pipes to standards both familiar and lesser-known.  That voice, capable of opera and swing alike, is supremely dramatic on the Debussy-inspired “My Reverie,” a tour de force in two-and-a-half minutes.  But it’s playful on the album’s lone up-tempo selections, the brassy “I Cried for You” and “Perdido.”  Vaughan’s reading of the latter may be the song’s definitive interpretation.  Her husky yet rangy voice caresses Percy Faith’s slow, string-swathed take on “Deep Purple,” which come to think of it, would have made an appropriate album title, too, for this melancholy masterpiece.  After Hours has been expanded for the first time in this box set with four more single sides including a knowing take on Frank Loesser’s “I’ll Know” from Guys and Dolls, in which Vaughan again reveals her mastery of bending notes of the melody in unexpected yet emotionally honest directions.  Mark Wilder and Maria Triana have nicely remastered this disc.  While After Hours is a wonderful choice, it’s a mystery why Vaughan’s other Columbia LPs drawn from singles weren’t included in the box, such as Linger Awhile (12 tracks, CL 914, 1956).

The 12-song In Hi-Fi was reissued by Legacy in 2006 with nine bonus tracks, almost all alternate takes.  That edition of the album has been reprised here.  In Hi-Fi was itself an expanded reissue; its first eight songs were initially issued in 1950 as an eponymous ten-inch album, Vaughan’s one “true” LP for Columbia.  Arranged by George Treadwell, all its titles are jazz vocal cornerstones even today.  Not only is Vaughan indelible and expressive on some of the most-revered songs ever written (“Nice Work if You Can Get It,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” just to name two) but she’s backed on these May 1950 recordings by an octet including trombonist Benny Green and a certain 23-year old fella named Davis on trumpet.  Yes, these performances feature Miles in a rare role as supporting musician to a vocalist, and his horn is immediately recognizable.  There’s no orchestral sweetening here, just Sarah and a hot – and cool – band.

Vaughan is impassioned on the late-in-the-evening torch material and is persuasive and restrained on a powerful “Come Rain or Come Shine” and on a dark-around-the-edges “It Might as Well Be Spring.”  She and a very prominent Davis locate the pathos in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s wistful melody.  But she’s swaggering and vivacious on “Nice Work,” too.  And if one ever wondered where “Sassy” came from, just listen to “Mean to Me” or “Ain’t Misbehavin’” for ample answer.  Of the non-octet tracks (three of which lack annotation here as to personnel and recording date), none is more interesting than Vaughan’s wordless vocal exercise on Alfred Newman’s 1949 film theme “Pinky.”  Vaughan favorite Frank Loesser’s “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year” gets the big orchestral treatment, more appropriate to After Hours than to In HI-Fi, and “Ooh, What’cha Doin’ to Me” is even more brassy.  The alternate takes, with numerous variances from the issued takes, only make it easier to appreciate Vaughan’s art and adaptability.  (Unfortunately, In Hi-Fi is marred by pops and clicks.  The 1996 reissue bore a disclaimer that “disc noise is inherent on this material.”)

Sarah Vaughan Box ContentsA much older Vaughan revisits the George and Ira Gershwin songbook (which she had been singing her entire life) on 1982’s Gershwin Live, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas playing arrangements by Marty Paich (who had worked with everybody from Mel Torme and Sammy Davis Jr. to Cheryl Lynn and Aretha Franklin). Vaughan and Gershwin were a perfect match, two artists who pushed the envelope of the Great American Songbook. On the initial Porgy and Bess medley, Vaughan is equally comfortable with both sides of Gershwin: his folk opera of “Summertime” and “I Loves You Porgy” and his Broadway showbiz of “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” The program is well-chosen with songs tender (“But Not for Me”), sly (“Sweet and Low-Down”) and rousing (“Swanee/Strike Up the Band”) and Vaughan’s voice is still impeccable three decades after the earlier Columbia recordings as she scats, swings Ira Gershwin’s lyrics and makes these vintage songs her own. An epic take on “The Man I Love” particularly stands out. Tilson Thomas takes the piano on a few tracks, and he leads the Philharmonic in a majestic vein on this celebratory live disc.

The brief box concludes with Brazilian Romance, a 1987 effort produced by Sergio Mendes and just one of Vaughan’s excursions into the rich and sensual songbook of the South American country.  Her final true studio album, it followed 1977’s I Love Brazil and 1979’s Copacabana, but differed from those sets in that it didn’t include any songs by Brazil’s answer to Gershwin, Antonio Carlos Jobim.  Like I Love Brazil, however, it featured songs by Dori Caymmi and Milton Nascimiento, and the latter appeared to duet on his own “Love and Passion.”  The sleek and shimmering sound is pure eighties, but Vaughan’s rapport with these songs is unmistakable, and her musical support impeccable: George Duke on keyboards, Caymmi on guitar, Paulinho Da Costa on percussion, and appearances by Hubert Laws (flute), Ernie Watts (alto sax) and Tom Scott (Lyricon).  Vaughan sings in Portuguese on “Love and Passion,” and delivers an all-time classic with her ravishing rendition of the Mendes/Alan and Marilyn Bergman composition “So Many Stars,” originally recorded by Brasil ’66.  Mendes’ wife Gracinha Leporace from that unit appears on “Your Smile,” joining another accomplished singer, Siedah Garrett, on background vocals.

Sarah Vaughan’s Complete Columbia Albums Collection makes a fine primer to the Divine One, equally emphasizing her early and late periods.  But it remains a missed opportunity.  All told, Vaughan only recorded roughly 65+ titles in over 20 sessions in a four-year period at Columbia.  A truly complete collection of every one of those tracks would be absolutely Divine.

You can order both box sets by clicking on the covers, above!

Written by Joe Marchese

December 14, 2012 at 10:06

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