With her youthful good looks, wide appeal and now bestseller status, one might dismiss Miss Jones as the Brittany Spears of the adult pop-jazz set. But she’s got a lot more going for her than that. Her hype isn’t powered by a marketing team, but by the promise and delivery of something fresh. Rather than pyrotechnic megaproductions featuring T&A, she keeps things simple, quiet and understated, with the sexuality smoldering in the service of artful song-making. And instead of barrelling down the highway where so many other pop sensations have roared, she prefers back roads and byways, pulling from varied and unlikely sources for a sound that is fresh and surprising - blues and Bonnie Raitt, country and Hoagy Carmichael, torchsong, tango, and a pantheon of other musical Joneses, from Etta to Rickie Lee.
Jones was born in 1979 in New York City but grew up in Texas. That bit about her dad being Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar is true, though he’s an absentee father and Jones apparently doesn’t have much time for him. Down Beat magazine recognized her talents with three Student Music Awards in 1996 and 1997, and she attended the University of North Texas to major in jazz piano. It didn’t take her long to gravitate to the New York City, however. It also didn’t take her long to infiltrate the music scene there. She moved to Greenwich Village in 1999, and toward the end of that year she began performing with an NYC jazz-groove unit called Wax Poetic. By the fall of 2000, she had her own combo with guitarist Jesse Harris, bassist Lee Alexander and drummer Dan Rieser. The group recorded a demo for Blue Note in October, and based on that Blue Note signed her in January 2001. In May, she was back in the studio working on Come Away With Me.
It’s easy to understand what Blue Note saw in that demo. Come Away With Me wins you over from the start. Harris’ "Don’t Know Why" sounds like a standard that has been in the repertoire for 50 years. It’s short, sweet and simple, but there’s depth, too. Jones delivers several layers of emotion - regret, nostalgia, a glimmer of hope - and plays a great little piano solo. Her keyboard work, in fact, is one of the delights of the disc. Sometimes, she adds no more than a note or two, but they are always well-placed.
"Seven Years" features guitarist Kevin Breit - of many a recent Cassandra Wilson disc - and a drier studio sound that brings out some different nuances in Jones’ voice - a hint of Billie, a pinch of Patsy Cline, and a good dose of country. "Cold Cold Heart," one of at least four hits on the disc, sets this impression fast. Alexander introduces the Hank Williams classic with a swinging bass line over which Jones sings the first chorus. She adds piano on the second verse, and Adam Levy enters with electric guitar washes like traffic on a far-off highway.
"Feelin’ the Same Way" trots at a relatively fleet pace, with Jones sounding like Dusty Springfield and with nice work by drummer Brian Blade and Breit. Jones plays electric piano on this short and well-shaped cruiser and also gets to open her pipes a little more. Then comes the devastating "Come Away With Me," a Jones original, an irresistible invitation, twilit, tender but insistent, like a summer love affair. Again, the tune is short but brilliantly shaped, with the tension rising and falling with every measure.
Simplicity and economy seem the order of the day on this disc, which allows Jones to concentrate on delivering heartfelt lyrics and allows us to concentrate on Jones. "The Long Day is Over," for example, written by Harris and Jones, consists of just 33 words and a four-note pattern repeated by guitarist Bill Frisell.
"Shoot the Moon" and "One Flight Down" are a couple more great Jesse Harris tune; on the latter Norah sounds a lot like Bonnie Raitt, and Sam Yahel adds great touches on the B3 organ. Alexander lends "Lonestar," a tribute to Norah’s home state, and "Painter Song" - which brings to mind Rickie Lee Jones’ 1991 disc Pop Pop - to the mix. "Turn Me On," provided by Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer John D. Loudermilk, rocks slowly and soulfully, with that peculiar southern talent for seamlessly melding the gospel and the gutter. "I’ve Got To See You Again" offers some spice in the form of a hot, obsessive tango that brings violinist Jenny Scheinman to the fore. And Hoagy Carmichael’s "The Nearness of You" closes the disc. Jones’ reading is full and potent, with her alone singing it and accompanying herself on piano.
We all wait for musicians like Norah Jones to come along, but they come along all to rarely. Norah just celebrated her 23rd birthday at the end of March, however, so expect to hear much more from her over many years to come.