At 31, Norah Jones is no-questions-asked sublime. Ten Grammys (and seven nominations) make her a formidable presence commercially. Also critically – even that curmudgeon Robert Christgau acquiesced: “What’s not to like?” Her versatility makes her a coveted collaborator to artists, genre no bar. And so, as we listened to album after album that Jones has served up since her not-quite-jazz-but-getting-there-in-a-hurry début Come Away With Me, which swept eight Grammys in 2003, we may have overlooked her off-road excursions.
…Featuring fixes that jig-saw bit back in place. This immaculately conceived compilation presents a goulash of collaborations – some famous, others obscure – that Jones has enjoyed with musical creatures great and small. Since this album comes to us from Blue Note, there are the obligatory high-fives with heavy-hitters in blues and jazz (and the uncertain territory in between), among them Herbie Hancock (the Joni Mitchell cover “Court & Spark”), Willie Nelson (a sterile take on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” that was nominated for a Grammy in 2010) and the dear departed Ray Charles (who was unlatching death’s door when he sang “Here We Go Again” with Jones).
There is a nostalgic footnote for one of Jones’ earliest (and admittedly favourite) bands, The Little Willies – a cover of Elvis’ “Love Me”. There’s “The Best Part” from her off-moments with her goof-rock outfit El Madmo. There’s also a pick-me-up for her touring accompanist, singer-songwriter Sasha Dobson, in “Bull Rider”. There are forays into old-school country with Dolly Parton (“Creepin’ In”) that may leave Taylor Swift gasping. And a slippery go at “Blue Bayou” with singer-songwriter M Ward that will trouble the ghost of Roy Orbison. “Dear John” with country singer Ryan Adams (from his 2005 album Jacksonville City Nights) is about a widow’s lament to her dead husband and is poignant in a quirky way. There are nods to indie inventiveness in her work with Glaswegian art-pop group Belle and Sebastian (“Little Lou, Prophet Jack, Ugly John”).
But the 18-track list also forays into areas where we least expect Jones to go – and still come away redeemed. With critically acclaimed hip-hop artist Q-tip she performs “Life is Better”, an unexpectedly gorgeous duet in which she sounds barefoot and ebullient. There is the lifting “Take Off Your Cool” with Outkast, arguably America’s most innovative hip-hop act. She complements cheerfully the wheezy huskiness of MC Talib Qweli on “Soon the New Day”.
…Featuring is a cleverly arranged compilation with the singalong country bits at the top of the list, the hip-hop tracks scattered in the middle, and tapers out to more jazz, soul and country at the end. It’s a sizeable playlist, with the odd crushingly unwholesome track thrown in. Willie Nelson is disappointingly sterile on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and doesn’t hold a dead wick to the raunchiness that Ray Charles personified in his unforgettable 1961 recording with Betty Carter.
That said, Norah Jones shines bright through most of it, with a voice that makes duets droolable.
Blue Note Records, 2010
This review first appeared in M magazine, April 2011
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