Whether we realize it or not, we sometimes approach tribute albums a little sideways, sort of edging up to them while wondering if the artist will do justice to the original. I suppose it’s a natural enough attitude to have, but it seems a little unfair if we judge them too quickly.
Those thoughts were going through my mind as I began to listen to a new album from young songstress Jaimee Paul, now out on the Green Hill label. The album’s title, At Last, serves immediate notice that she’s taking on some powerful icons — they don’t get much bigger than Etta James’ timeless signature song.
But this album is about more than one song, and the cover tells us that by listing the names of the thirteen legendary songbirds who virtually own the tunes Jaimee sings. It’s worth noting that their status is such that even though only their first names are used, each one is immediately identifiable — Ella, Rosemary, Doris, and Lena, just to list a few.
Jaimee’s own background includes classical training on piano and french horn, but it’s as a vocalist that she found her path to success. As a child she sang in her church choir, and gospel music continued to be a strength even as she reached adulthood but she then began branching out. Her latest performances have been as part of Wynonna Judd’s show.
Although Jaimee Paul might be a relatively new name this is actually her second album, but it’s her first for a major label. It’s a first-class production, with backup provided by one of Nashville’s best groups, pianist Beegie Adair and her trio. Additional accompaniment is furnished by the Jeff Steinberg Orchestra, along with a rising young trumpeter (who also happens to be Jaimee’s husband), Leif Shires.
Jaimee certainly has the pipes to tackle the music of the legendary songbirds. She has a full, mature and smoky voice that’s reminiscent of the era’s singers, and she knows how to give us a fresh and pleasing take on a familiar piece while maintaining the spirit of the original. Listening to her on a song like “Fever,” is naturally a little startling at times because Peggy Lee’s classic is so familiar, but Jaimee’s version sounds better with each play. The same could be said about her performances on Doris Day’s “Sentimental Journey,” or Judy Garland’s “Over The Rainbow,” both outstanding renditions.
Those three were among my favorites but my top dog was probably “What A Difference A Day Makes,” given a little more of a Latin tilt than Dinah Washington’s original. Also enjoyable were “Whatever Lola Wants,” a Sarah Vaughan classic, and of course the title tune, “At Last” — and this is coming from a long-time Etta fan. Both songs feature full, lush orchestral arrangements that help build a perfect mood for the music.
An outstanding collection of retro sounds from Jaimee Paul and her friends, well worth a listen.