by James M. Manheim
The layers of Norah Jones's voice shine softly in the illumination cast by a tune. The voice seems too ordinary to have fascinated listeners as it has, but its grain is unique. Born Geethali Norah Jones Shankar in 1979, she is the daughter of Indian sitar legend Ravi Shankar and American concert promoter Sue Jones. "I felt I could be in love with different women in different places," Shankar writes in his autobiography. "It was like having a girl in every port and sometimes there was more than one!"
When Sue Jones tired of this arrangement, she moved to Dallas, where Norah attended the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, a multicultural magnet school whose alumni also include neosoul singer Erykah Badu. Growing up in Dallas she also heard her fair share of country music, and she has cited Willie Nelson as a primary inspiration. You can hear that in the uncannily conversational quality of her singing, accomplished by both singers without recourse to spoken passages. Her voice doesn't have exceptional range either technically or emotionally, but it draws by turns on little moves from jazz, blues-rock, country, and singer-songwriter folk. And there's a little bright-colored thread of her Indian ancestry running through her vocal style, heard in its centering on nose and throat and in the little grace notes that attach themselves effortlessly to notes toward phrase ends. All this is wrapped up into singing so relaxed that you don't realize how unusual it is.
The country aspect is somewhat diminished in Jones's newest music, diverted into a band she's formed called the Little Willies. But it's still there in the plain forms of her songwriting, which comes to the fore on her latest album, Not Too Late. Jones wrote most of the music with her longtime romantic and musical partner, bassist Lee Alexander, and it marks quite a departure from her first two albums. The musical accompaniments are
strikingly minimal, mostly acoustic guitar, bass or bowed cello, and Jones's own sparse keyboards. Of albums that have reached the top spot on the U.S. pop charts, it's certainly the quietest in years, maybe decades. One song features a whistled tune, another a kind of muttered scatting through a trombone. Jones's compositions are mostly romantic, with excursions into Tom Waits-style black retro and a wry response to the last election. They're not virtuoso efforts, but they fit her voice in a way that heightens the extremely reflective atmosphere to a degree where it becomes hypnotic.
Taken together, the songs and accompaniment suggest an artist who has asserted control over her career even after reaching a level of fame where such a thing is usually impossible. The Michigan Theater, where Jones appears on Friday, May 4, should be the right place for the unusually intimate experience Jones's new music offers: Hill Auditorium, which she surely could have filled, is too big, and the concrete walls of the Power Center would have detracted from the making-music-in-the-living-room quality of her latest material.
[Review published May 2007]