Etta James – The Montreux Years – 2 CD Set
Part of the Montreux Years — live performances packaged as 2-CDs each of rare & previously unreleased shows by Etta James & Nina Simone. Both sets scheduled for release (as early as May 28th or June 11/BMG). The music has been remastered & sound pristine.
Etta James: The Montreux Years documents concerts recorded (1977-1993). James’ timeless classics, electrifying performances with her signature raw, soaring vocals are captured like smoke in a bottle. They span 3-decades of performing in Switzerland. Etta unleashes her riveting showcase in a program that is one tidal wave after another. Like Elvis Presley, Etta was a genuine powerhouse performer who knew how to interpret & reinterpret songs she didn’t write & made them expressively her own.
CD 1 opens with Etta’s commanding voice tinted with texture, power & balanced between gruff & satiny tones on “Breakin’ Up Somebody’s Home.” This features The Roots Band in July 1990. Then back to 1989 where Etta rocks the house on the excellent Otis Redding composition “I Got the Will.”
In comparison to Nina Simone, I can only say Etta’s a voice that is a little happier, less contemptuous. It would’ve been nice to hear both ladies sing together & smile. The contrast would’ve been enlightening.
“Damn Your Eyes,” — more dramatic. While Simone focused on preaching, scolding & being a little bitter (& maybe so), Etta simply came out, in your face with both fists & rhythm swinging.
By cut 5 excellence flows from her classic horn-driven “Tell Mama,” from 1977 (it features German sax legend, Klaus Doldinger, founding member of Passport). The live recordings all have great arrangements. Etta is invigorating from cut 5 down to track 12 & never lets up (the magnificent Jimmy Reed cover of “Baby What Do You Want Me To Do,” features festival founder the late Claude Nobs on harmonica). Everything is fiery (“I Sing the Blues For You”), hot (“Come To Mama”), entertaining & most importantly well-paced. Not forgetting, the sequence may be years apart.
CD 1 = 1 hour 17 minutes & CD 2 — entirely recorded at Casino Montreux July 11, 1975. It includes 9 blistering blues/soul covers like “Respect Yourself,” “Drown In My Own Tears,” “Dust My Broom,” “Rock Me Baby,” & “Stormy Monday,” among others. Everything arranged & performed with heavy machinery. There’s no denying Etta James was an intriguing, pivotal performer.
My Etta James record introduction was purely by chance. At 10 years old I bought an Argo 45 rpm single for 10 cents at an early 60s thrift store. Threw it in with my Tom Jones shirt, Elmer’s Glue & 12-pack of Milk Duds. I thought it was interesting: “Dream,” & “Fool That I Am,” on the flip. At least, as I recall, that was my private intro to blues/jazz/R&B. I did buy more Etta James later. Then, I moved on to Billie Holiday (my Uncle gave me her 78s), then Timi Yuro, Carmen McRae & Dinah Washington (thanks Brook Benton). I wasn’t enthralled with Ella Fitzgerald & Lena Horne yet. But I needed something meatier than Lesley Gore & Connie Francis.
Other musicians are detailed on the CD insert. Notable names from 1977 included Rick Wakeman (keyboards), David “Fathead” Newman, (sax), Richard Tee (keyboards), Steve Ferrone (drums), & many others.
Criticism? As on the Nina Simone CD, the package interior is ambitious & attractively designed. But the front cover is not up to jazz standards. This is a cartoonish psychedelic hodgepodge. Etta deserves better.
Produced by Nick Bonard, Fraser Kennedy & Thierry Amsallem. The 2-CD set is available at Amazon & Rough Trade NYC. No website/Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/EttaJames
Photo of Etta James above performing in 2006/New Orleans courtesy of Jeff Christensen/AP