Documents a 1972 concert put on by the Left Bank Jazz Society at The Great Ballroom.
If you’re a soulful jazz singer named “Etta Jones,” the relatively huge fame and success of “Etta James” (who famously sang that great version of “At Last”) might obscure your legacy. But it shouldn’t, as the recently released live recording A Soulful Sunday, Live at the Left Bank richly demonstrates.
Released only now for the first time, this recording from 1972 documents a concert put on by the Left Bank Jazz Society at The Great Ballroom in Baltimore, MD. It was no easy time for straight-ahead jazz, what with rock and soul having eaten its market share pretty thoroughly. Left Bank was putting together shows for the faithful and knew what it was about. It not only brought in a hip jazz singer who was an inheritor of Billie Holiday’s legacy (and a serious influence on the likes of Nancy Wilson and Dinah Washington) but also thought to have her accompanied by one of the best piano trios in the world: Cedar Walton on piano, bassist Sam Jones, and drummer Billy Higgins.
Cedar Walton played with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers for years and would become a modern jazz composer who rivals Wayne Shorter for sophistication and distinction. Billy Higgins was Ornette Coleman’s first recording partner on drums, and Sam Jones simply played with everyone who mattered for decades in jazz. The trio, alone, is worth the price of admission. Walton has a distinctive touch that carries a heaping dose of the hiply funky jazz of the mid-1960s but also the rippling runs he learned from the likes of predecessors like Bud Powell. Whether in how he voices chords, how he arranges tunes, or the how his improvisations distinctively use elements of repetition and harmony, a Cedar Walton performance is unmistakable.
Jones’s voice is going to be the strongest flavor on almost any recording she appears on. It is intimate but brassy when it wants to be, drenched in blues with vinegar edge that makes it as much jazz as soul. But paired with Walton, she seems like a partner rather than a featured soloist. Their take on the Burt Bacharach song “This Girl’s in Love with You” is like no one else’s even as it retains the tune’s strengths. Jones shoots the melody through with blue notes from the very first phrase. Walton knows her style, so his trio puts a swinging backbeat on arrangement to grease it up. But the chords are voiced so that our ears are guided back to Bacharach’s harmonic cleverness. Surprisingly, the trio puts in several moments where the groove is suspended only to return—into Walton’s down-home solo or into a coda that mixes vocals with rippling piano runs.
When the pair is matched up on a straight blues, things are really cooking. “Blow Top Blues” is a 12-bar jazz blues, and Jones takes chorus after chorus of joyful play. She’ll take a phrase like “I’ve got bad news, and you’re the first to know” and spin it out over two full choruses with so much creativity and fun that you’re reminded that blues isn’t music of sadness but of overcoming sadness. Higgins drives the tune from behind the drum kit with a potent restraint.
The most purely joyful and swinging tune here, though, might be the jazz standard “Exactly Like You,” a mid-tempo beauty that lets everyone hit the pocket. Higgins starts on brushes, Jones walks surely, four on the floor, and then everyone gets louder, with Walton constantly interacting with the vocal in dramatic block chords. His solo moves easily from straight to double-time and features classic examples of his distinctive phrasing. It is followed on the album by “You Better Go Now,” a weepy ballad (“You better go now because I like you too much”), which is just as good in showing how a great jazz trio can complement a singer on material that might otherwise be too sentimental.
The trio starts things off with a feature on a tune that was a hit in 1972, “Theme from Love Story,” from the 1970 film. Walton can’t help himself, however, providing an arrangement that abstracts the somewhat sappy melody and sets it to an Afro-Cuban groove based on an insistent triplet pulse that gives way to luxurious swing. When he chooses to, Walton is a glorious traditionalist, and his left hand plays evenly swung quarter notes that mimic the Count Basie rhythm section on this bridge section. But before you know it he moves back to his quirkier sense of time and advanced post-bop harmony. It’s a great performance.
Jones’s one real hit song is the encore here, the sad ballad “Don’t Go to Strangers”. Surely everyone in the audience knew it was coming, and Jones plays with it, singing one of the bridges in the style of idol, Billie Holiday, before they close out the show and Walton’s trio plays a blues coda, quoting from “Straight, No Chaser” and several other standards.
To discover this gem almost fifty years after it was recorded is a sure pleasure and a reminder that Etta Jones was as good and often better than her more famous contemporaries. She stuck with jazz rather than soulful pop to a greater extent, which probably explains her less lauded career. But, then, she got to play with the likes of this trio. The only weakness here, but an understandable one, is the recording quality. It is good but not great, with Jones’s voice punched just into some distortion and often overpowering the microphone—and the trio. But it’s a minor flaw, and the trio is mostly captured in good balance with itself. The audience is audible in the background at various times, which adds to the joy, something that was clearly in plentiful supply on this February day in 1972 in Baltimore.
All the musicians from this one-off concert have passed, Walton most recently in 2013. The music lives on, happily, not only here on this recording but also in the way that this wonderful combination of jazz, blues, soul, and popular composing still feels like the center of what’s great about American music. This small slice of that legacy throbs still in so much hip-hop and modern rhythm and blues, whether those performers realize it or not.