A few things are immediately striking about the reissue of Etta Jones’ 1960 debut album Don’t Go to Strangers:
—They don’t make cover art like they used to. The LP size advantage over CDs is often cited as the reason CD-era art isn’t as good, but even in CD format this cover stands out from the crowd. It’s the basic elements and how they’re arranged: her stern, ambiguous facial expression, the color used to tint the photo, the classic font.
—The studio engineer as auteur is an interesting phenomenon. The only thing distracting about the cover is the label on the spine reading, “Rudy Van Gelder Remasters.” Inside, RVG himself explains that he’s the musician’s “messenger,” because of all the poor-quality jazz CDs issued until now. I’m no audiophile, and the “RVG” branding at first seems odd (are there music fans out there seeking the complete RVG collection?), but this CD certainly sounds good. And there is something noble about a studio engineer fighting for the music to be heard as clearly as he remembers it.
—The most appropriate musical accompaniment for vocal jazz is almost invisible, yet captivating when you focus your ears on it. The band here is impeccable, playing lightly and tastefully but also with feeling and depth. I could listen to an instrumental version of this album, and be happy.
—Etta Jones had an amazing ability to twist songs to her liking, to control a song’s effect by carefully controlling how she uttered each word.
That last one is, of course, most important. It’s why Jones had a 50-plus year career as a vocalist, why this album’s a classic, and why it’s so enjoyable from start to finish. It’s not entirely why this album had a hit single, though. Most of the songs she sings on Don’t Go to Strangers were familiar at the time. The title track, a surprise hit on the pop and R&B charts, was not. It’s a lesser-known song chosen by Jones herself, one the album’s producer thought of as “a b-side.” She sings it less drastically than most of the songs: more smoothly than most of the others, but of course smoothness is a choice as much as surprise is. Listen to the twilight mood that the music and her voice both evoke, and the tenderness in her singing.
“Don’t Go To Strangers” is not an anomaly within the album, but not completely representative of its style, either. More so is the sandwich of songs around it: “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” (the album-opener) and “I Love Paris”. Her phrasing on the former is so casual—in the way she delays, draws out her words (a reminder of her Southern roots, perhaps), and in how she builds upon her own singing, “jamming” with herself in a way. “I Love Paris” has an unusual tension to it, though also a relaxed back-and-forth. In both songs her voice will soar, but also stumble, in a way that doesn’t resemble stumbling after all, actually. More like a skip in a direction you didn’t expect: a step down, up or sideways, a pause or a jump.
The bluesy side to Jones’ singing shines on a gorgeous “Fine and Mellow”, appropriately lazy yet sung straight, with emotion. Throughout the album she picks up ridiculously familiar songs and takes them to new places—new in 1960, and still new now. But she also can deliver a soft, sensitive, completely straightforward reading of an immortal ballad, with leaps and changes less dramatic but just as powerful. Don’t Go to Strangers is the power of the human voice, revealed yet again.
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