Etta James has spent the last few years denying her rhythm and blues roots by experimenting with albums centered on standards and jazz classics. The results have been mixed at best. James big bluesy voice seemed constrained by the refined arrangements and delicate phrasings of songs designed for more delicate pipes. However, James’ Heart of a Woman demonstrates that with the right arrangements and material she has the ability to perform a jazz standard with the same devastating power that she demonstrated on R & B classics like “Tell Mama” and “I’d Rather Go Blind.”
The best cuts on Heart of a Woman combine elements of jazz and blues to create the sense of loneliness and desperation in which James has always excelled in expressing. “Sunday Kind of Love” is an excellent demonstration of James’ increasing ability to reign in her voice, releasing its full power only at key phrasings in the song. Mike Finegan’s understated Hammond organ solos here and throughout the disc help bridge the gap between the jazz and blues genres.
“My Old Flame” combines a bossa nova arrangement with a lilting saxophone solo by Red Halloway to create the perfect backdrop for James’ weary take on the song. The rough edges around her voice only makes James seem more in tune with the woeful nature of these songs. The rest of the material on the album is equally as strong (with the exception of a cover of Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed,” a miscalculation of major proportions).
Hopefully, James won’t abandon the blues forever for these softer forays into the worlds of jazz and standards. For now, Heart of a Woman is a record that should satisfy fans of both sides of James’ musical personality.