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A tribute in spirit and sound

Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday
Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday
By Etta James

Private Music / Windham Hill Records: 1994

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This review first appeared in the April 8, 1994 issue of the North County Blade-Citizen (now North County Times).

This unexpected tribute to Billie Holiday by veteran blues singer Etta James is a knockout. It succeeds so well because "Mystery Lady" is no imitation of Holiday, but a respectful, creative interpretation. James gives insightful readings of Holiday standards such as "The Man I Love," "Body and Soul" and "You've Changed," while evoking the sound and spirit of Holiday and finding new corners of nuance not heard in Holiday's performances.

James may be better equipped to interpret Holiday's repertoire without sounding like an imitator than any other contemporary female singer. James, who has throughout her career melded jazz and blues as did Holiday before her, has a unique sound that, like Holiday's, is based more on phrasing and delivery than on physical talent.

Credit for this successful tribute should also go to the band, especially pianist Cedar Walton. His sensitive playing not only complements James' singing, but also captures the mood of Holiday's era – more subdued, more sophisticated than nearly anything being produced today.