You would never guess Norah Jones’ age from her voice: a melodious alto blend of Billie Holiday compression (she fills the notes like ideal air pressure in a tire), Diana Krall easy self-possession, and a hint of smoky Dusty-in-Memphis grit.
I first heard the voice last year on the brilliant 8-string guitarist Charlie Hunter’s Songs From the Analog Playground, on which she appeared twice: a dazzling, bluesy rendition of Nick Drake’s “Day Is Done”; and most remarkably, a jazzy bossa nova version of Roxy Music’s ode to ennui, “More Than This,” on which she brought to mind an idealized Phoebe Snow.
Then her CD, Come Away With Me, came out and I knew they had put the wrong person on the cover: big trouble in the art department. For staring out from the jewel case is a vaguely exotic, raven-haired, sensuous-lipped, college girl. There is no way that this voice of sly experience came out of that face. But it did, and does.
Though released by the historic, jazz-oriented Blue Note label, Come Away, produced by the legendary Arif Mardin is an unlikely but cohesive admixture of easy jazz, sophisto-pop, smooth soul, and countryish L.A. singer-songwriter stylings. No ragas, though (more on that later), and not one moment of diva-like histrionics, not a whiff of Mariah Carey or Christina Aguilera begging you to hear ME ME ME above and beyond the SONG SONG SONG, which for them is just a vehicle for the real star of the show.
Norah is in control of her jazzy soul and devotes all of her prodigious talent to respecting the song: inhabiting it like a house, which she strolls about as a gracious host, pointing out its charming features. This artistic generosity and respect for the house displays maturity that most performers never achieve, let alone at 22. Who is this person? Where did she come from?
Jones was born in Brooklyn and grew up singing and playing piano in Dallas with her Oklahoma-born mother, who played Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Joni Mitchell records for her. She attended the same high school for the arts in Dallas as Erykah Badu, where she dove into jazz, absorbing the piano subtleties of Bill Evans and the classic musicianly vocals of Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, and Nina Simone. She went to the University of North Texas as a piano major for two years before dropping out to seek her musical fortune in New York.
Oh, by the way, her father is Ravi Shankar, with whom she appears to have a quite distant relationship. His name isn’t mentioned anywhere in her official bio, and is only mentioned in two articles I could find: a brief but deeply appreciative bio/interview in the NY Times Magazine, and an album review in the Washington Post. Once you know it you can see the resemblance – “vaguely exotic” look explained – but Shankar would appear to have about zero musical influence upon her: Jones’s beguiling potpourri features nary a vedantic ping, not a raga in sight.
Come Away With Me just flows out of the speakers, an early-summer float down a fragrant winding stream with outstanding Nashville-jazz originals from her guitarist Jesse Harris (“Don’t Know Why,” “Shoot the Moon,” “I’ve Got to See You Again”), L.A.-meets-Western Swing originals from her bassist Lee Alexander (“Seven Years,” “Feelin’ the Same Way,” “Lone Star”), her own intensely intimate, beautiful title track; and covers of Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You,” and a striking acoustic bass-driven version of Hank Williams’ “Cold Cold Heart.” She is something.