Simplex munditiis. A few thousand years ago the great Latin poet Horace strung these words together in a valiant attempt to describe the scene of a young woman weaving flowers into her hair in a sea cave. Horace’s poem is a record of the inherent, transient beauty in the world. The literal translation of simplex munditiis means beauty that is simple in its elegance. Debut albums rarely achieve such a timeless, breathtaking quality, but Norah Jones’ new album is worthy of Horace’s epithet. This is not a simple album, but one that is as naturally sublime as the subject of a Horace poem.
Blue Note has just released Jones’ first album, Come Away with Me, which would make it easy to file her away under jazz. But that would only be half of the story. Jones defies easy classification. Though only 22, she has created a complete, original style that straddles multiple musical genres.
Back to the jazz half. Her voice often has a sparse, vulnerable quality in the tradition of Billie Holiday, where an impressive vocal range is sacrificed for tighter, more profound dalliances on a smaller scale. Underneath the timid beauty though is a glimpse of power as raw and romantic as Etta James’ “At Last”. Jones has digested a healthy dose of the great female jazz vocalists, but if musical influences were colors she would be swathed in a magnificent multi-colored frock. She can take songs from a multitude of different genres and rub enough jazz on their edges to conjure the genie of Nina Simone. Jones is a younger musical sibling of Simone, but enough of her own woman as well. Both women peel back the edges of jazz music to reveal the medium’s vast depth and the infinite possibilities found there. Jones’ can hear enough jazz in Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” to interpret it and make it her own as brilliantly as Simone did with “Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues” so many decades ago.
Jones’ version of “Cold, Cold Heart” makes it seem like Hank Williams wrote the song over a few carafes of red wine in a smoky corner of the Five Spot. Her unabashed emotional honesty on this song is as close to the essence of Williams as a ride in the limo where he died at 29 on a cold New Year’s Eve. The steel-stringed clunk and twang of Williams’ rhythm guitar is transformed into a majestic bass line that anchors the other musicians as they take off on Texas-tinged jazz journeys of their own. Jones, who grew up in Dallas, frequently credits her mother’s record collection for her eclectic tastes because it exposed her to musicians as diverse as Ray Charles and Willie Nelson (who she recently opened for and sang a duet with).
Jones’ own compositions, “Come Away with Me” and “Nightingale”, are concrete evidence that she is quite familiar with the work of Carole King. King is as much a part of the piano and songwriting, and even singing, of Ms. Jones than any of the jazz singers to whom she may be compared. Both women can write songs that feel as open as they are independent .
At a recent concert at the Fez in New York City, Jones came out on stage, smiled nervously at the audience, and immediately started in on the piano. There was only time for a second or two of introductory applause. A few notes came out of the piano and then her voice, like a breeze in August, blew through the room. Our conversations stopped in mid-sentence and we hung transfixed for the next hour. The proverbial pin could have been dropped. We were grounded only when Jones, who comes across as being unaware of her immense talent, paused to introduce a song written by one of her bandmates or to refer to herself as a dork.
Jones’ band, which at Fez consisted of Adam Levy on acoustic and electric guitar and Lee Alexander on upright bass, work excellently off one another. Their music has enough jazz in it to allow Levy to make a few improvised solo runs on guitar and for Alexander to prove that he is capable of much more than providing a solid backing beat. This is also true of their work on her album, as well as that of Jesse Harris who contributed a number of songs to Come Away with Me. It is a testament to the promise of Jones’ music that guitar legend Bill Frisell stopped by her first recording session to play on a track. Perhaps even stronger testament to Jones’ merit as an artist, she was produced by Arif Mardin, who can list Aretha Franklin, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and John Prine on his resume.
Norah Jones and her band create music that is refreshing. It is as exciting as the lights of a city skyline on a Saturday night. As introspective as a letter written by candlelight at 2 a.m. And as soothing as a deep massage. It would be hard to a lick a label and stamp it on Norah Jones’ music. She has an understanding of the very essence of music, as if she had on X-ray goggles that allowed her to see its bare bones. The music is unique enough to stand on its own, without need for a genre label, and for that reason it feels fresh. If you’d like to hear an artist that’s just begun to hit her stride, then come away with her.