Blue Gardenia

Etta James, whose voice is surely a force of nature—and whose soul-belting R&B style is a national treasure—has always had a hit-or-miss relationship with standards.

Etta James, whose voice is surely a force of nature—and whose soul-belting R&B style is a national treasure—has always had a hit-or-miss relationship with standards. For instance, her classic '60s hit versions of the once-pastel tunes "Trust In Me" and "At Last" gloriously clicked, bringing explosive vitality to the songs. Other times, her patented rough-and-tumble, over-the-top approach overwhelmed the tunes. On Blue Gardenia, James and the material are a near-perfect fit—perhaps because she took the path of the sinuous readings first given to many of these tunes 40 years ago by Ray Charles and the late Dinah Washington. Yet the spare (some might say too-loosely played) arrangements by pianist Cedar Walton, elegantly Ellingtonian in design, seem designed to fit a singer with a less robust style. That aside, the title track and the minor-mode "Cry Me a River" are riveting.—BH