Jazz vocalist and pianist Norah Jones‘ debut album is comprised of 14 graceful, stripped-down and sedate tracks. At the tender age of just 22 years, her voice has overtones of Sade worship about it – and her passion for the music of Billie Holliday is obvious.
A native New Yorker, Jones moved to Texas at an early age and listened to her mother’s Billie Holliday records and ‘old’ music on the radio. At school she learned piano from the age of 7 and was in the choir – good groundings in musicianship which have clearly helped to get her a major label deal at such a young age.
While still attending a performing arts school (also attended by Erykah Badu), she began to win a whole clutch of awards for Best Jazz Vocalist. After university, where she studied jazz piano, she returned to New York to begin her career in earnest – and was immediately snapped up in January 2001. It is a heartening story, so unlike Pop Idol, and restores one’s faith in the music industry’s ability to spot talent and nurture it.
Well, to a point. For while the music is never short of lovely throughout, the album features just two of her own compositions. As contemporary coffee table jazz records go, this is not unusual – indeed, it is conservative. The rest of the album is made up of covers, specially commissioned pieces and original material composed by her band. And the band, minimalistic though its arrangements are, is impressive, ticking along in a proficient and understated background that allows us to focus on Jones. But we can’t help but wonder if she constrained herself deliberately or if it was suggested that she play it safe with her debut.
Her own pieces, Come Away With Me and Nightingale, are delicious slices of a rich cake, lying somewhere between the elegiac pace of Lambchop and the easy listening blues of Nina Simone, with Nightingale surprising for its use of classical guitar as the lynchpin of the piece. But on these, as with the rest of the album, the musical arrangements are muted, to the point where the listener struggles to stay awake for all 14 tracks.
Despite Arif Mardin’s largely echoless atmospherics and conservative production values, intrinsic throughout this record, Norah Jones has laid down a marker of great potential. For her next album, she needs to be a little more adventurous and allow her undoubted talent to pull her through.