Newcomer Norah Jones poured her voice into the dinner theater at Bimbo’s night club in San Francisco with all the force of a flash flood. From the back of the dimly lit room, the petite Jones could just as easily have been mistaken for Emmylou Harris or Billie Holiday, her black jumpsuit and wavy, dark hair blending into the background scenery. But the more the waves of her sultry voice washed over the audience, the more we realized that we were hearing something extraordinary for the first time. It’s hard to believe she’s just a kid.
The polished, ebony grand piano where Jones spent the majority of the concert sat in center stage, lit with small tea candles set atop the instrument’s body. She would occasionally whisk herself away to the small organ draped in a bright East Asian tapestry, set up stage left. Her movement between songs was as subtle and understated as her singing style. Song after song, the audience sat rapt in anticipation, waiting for Jones to cut loose in the multi-octave style of Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston. But Jones had nothing to prove, and the thrift with which she spent each note resulted in songs with Zen-like perfection, seamlessly weaving genre after genre into a set that swayed from country to jazz to folk ballads to bluesy soul. A microphone was mounted before her, but Jones’ voice seemed to flow straight from her mouth to the audience’s ears, like a sweet lullaby. Nothing that smooth could have been transmitted through an amplifier and speaker.
For the first of two sold-out shows, the normally beer-soaked dance floor at Bimbo’s night club was covered with large round tables specially set up for the evening, like white lily pads over a placid pond. Men in sport coats and women with their hair up sipped drinks out of thick high ball glasses and drummed their fingers to the rhythm of Norah Jones and her band. Backed by Lee Alexander on the upright bass, Adam Levy on the six string acoustic and Fender guitar, and percussionist Brian Blade, Jones strolled through most of the songs on her debut disc Come Away With Me, and played us a few new ones written on tour. “Shoot the Moon”, “Lonestar”, and “The Nearness of You” opened the show, and sounded more like interpretations of someone else’s work than mere recreations of the recordings enthusiastic fans knew. Jones was excellent at shifting the cadence and inflection of her lyrics. She had little trouble transforming the rambling chaparral of “Lonestar”‘s Western tempo into a weeping willow of a silky torch song.
Trained as a jazz pianist, Jones was comfortable enough to give her voice a rest and solo in many of the tunes. She added new syncopated dimensions to the Hank Williams classic “Cold Cold Heart”, convincing us that the song was made for some after-hours juke joint rather than the Grand Ole Oprey. In her singing, Jones proved how far a jazz vocalist can stray while remaining true to the lyrics. “One Flight Down”, a sweet ballad as it was recorded on Come Away With Me, was dipped in soul for the live performance. Jones left ample space between refrains for her musicians to shine, making superb use of both silence and sound. The crowd at Bimbo’s, seated but not subdued, showed its appreciation for the musicianship backing Jones as much as they did for the chanteuse herself- applauding Levy’s guitar solos and the flow of Alexander’s bass.
Blue Note Records, the label that signed Jones last year, has been home to musical legends such as Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman over its 60 year history. The label is renowned for its flexibility in allowing artists to explore pop possibilities while supporting a jazz tradition. That’s why Come Away With Me is filled with as many different musical styles as it is songs. So it will be interesting to see in coming years how often Jones pops up on MTV, a seemingly obvious showcase for her beauty and voice. One can only assume that she’s being bombarded with offers from the likes of P. Diddy and The Neptunes to let them produce her into superstardom. Unfortunately, superstar is not a word that one associates with the Blue Note label anymore. Her sensuous voice and talent on the piano would serve her well in whatever direction she decides to move. Jones just needs to decide which side she wants the world to see.
For now, she seems content to be her own woman. During the show at Bimbo’s, Jones and the band showcased a handful of new songs—many of which were penned by Jones herself. From the sound of things, she seems content to keep exploring the rich possibilities of almost every musical formal you can imagine.
If Jones’ voice was mature beyond her years, she revealed her youth each time she conversed with the crowd. Living in New York for four years hadn’t washed away her North Texas drawl. She giggled like a teenager when she pointed to the lit gauze background setup on stage, and said that it reminded her of the Sam Raimi classic Evil Dead horror film. She sheepishly voice her “thanks” after each song, like a kid performing for the first time. But when she started singing, Jones could do no wrong. She leant a touch of Cole Porter to an inspired cover of Horace Silver’s jazz classic “Peace”. Jones lost the audience with her giggling references to Eminem, and regained us with her mastery of the past century’s standards.
Jones carefully credited Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko before closing out the set with a countrified version of The Band’s “Bessie Smith”. It was as clear at the end of the show as it had been at the start that the talented Jones was delighted to be performing—laughing through to the end of the show, and never losing a stitch of the rich, velvet texture from her voice. Everyone walked away happy, including Norah Jones.