In light of all the lukewarm things now being said in print about Norah Jones’ second album, I thought it might be worth revisiting what I wrote about her first album a year and a half ago in The Wall Street Journal.
Not everybody in the jazz business agreed with me (I got an e-mail, for instance, from a very distinguished jazz guitarist who really liked her music and begged to differ with me). For the most part, though, I was struck by the positive reaction to this piece among musicians.
Anyway, here it is, for what it’s worth.
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At 22, Norah Jones, a slender, fresh-faced singer-pianist with a raspy bedroom voice, is the talk of the music business. Her debut CD, “Come Away With Me,” is a collection of soft-rock ballads sung in an intimate style that is a quirky mixture of country and blues. It’s selling hand over fist to thirtysomethings who are too old for hip-hop–nearly a million copies since January–at a time when record sales are in an industry-wide tailspin. But while reporters are losing their heads over Jones, I have yet to meet a jazz musician who speaks well of her album. I was chatting the other day with a jazz singer I know, a very nice woman who never has a nasty word to say about anybody, and I asked her about “Come Away With Me.” She shook her head and cautiously replied, “Well, there’s nothing really wrong with it, I guess. But…it’s not jazz.”
What difference does that make? Jazz, after all, isn’t the only kind of good music in the world. To be sure, I’m not all that impressed by Jones, who strikes me as appealing but not quite grown up, sort of like what you’d get if a character on a teen-angst TV drama were to take up blues singing as a hobby. Still, the world is full of pretty young soft-rock balladeers, so why should anyone care that this one has struck pay dirt? Or, as a puzzled newspaper editor recently asked me, “What is it about Norah Jones that’s putting jazz people’s noses out of joint?”
The answer is simple: She records for Blue Note.
Blue Note is one of the last remaining big-time labels that is, or was, totally committed to jazz. Founded in 1939, it has recorded such legendary artists as Sidney Bechet, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, and Horace Silver. If you were to make a list of the 100 most significant jazz albums of the 20th century, you’d find that at least 10 of them, if not more, were released on Blue Note. Moreover, the label’s current roster includes the eminently noteworthy likes of Patricia Barber, Bill Charlap, Joe Lovano, Greg Osby, and Cassandra Wilson–heavy hitters all.
So what’s Jones doing in such fast company? Making money, that’s what. As a rule, jazz albums don’t sell, but this rule has lately been broken by a string of good-looking female vocalists, including Wilson, Diana Krall and Jane Monheit. Every label wants one. Blue Note now has two–only one of them doesn’t sing jazz. Granted, Cassandra Wilson is by no means a standard-issue Ella Fitzgerald-type singer (her latest CD contains such pop songs as “The Weight” and “Wichita Lineman”), but I don’t know anybody who thinks she is anything other than a jazz musician. Not so Norah Jones. Her agreeable, innocuous music bears no resemblance whatsoever to any known form of jazz, however eclectic or cross-pollinated. She is a pop singer, period.
Because of this, many jazz musicians see red when journalists describe her as a “jazz singer,” just as it drives them crazy that the bland mewlings of soprano saxophonist Kenny G, the Thomas Kinkade of music, are known as “smooth jazz.” To them, the word jazz stands for a musical idiom of the highest sophistication, arguably America’s foremost contribution to the modern movement in art, and they don’t want it devalued by misappropriation. Never mind that Jones doesn’t call herself a jazz singer, or that Blue Note isn’t promoting her as one. The fact remains that she records for a prestigious jazz label, and when bona fide jazz musicians open up the New York Times Magazine and find an article called “The New Old Thing: Norah Jones Takes Jazz Singing Back to Its Future,” they see another door slamming in their faces.
A well-connected record producer who has no use for Jones’ music recently assured me with a straight face that the profits from “Come Away With Me” will allow Blue Note to underwrite the development of more challenging artists. Indeed, such things have been known to happen–but all slopes are slippery, especially when they’re lined with cash. Yes, Blue Note is still a serious jazz label, but how long will it stay that way now that it’s getting a taste of serious money? Will Bruce Lundvall, the president of Blue Note, start dropping less profitable artists from his roster and looking for more Norah Joneses instead? I hope not, but you’d be surprised how fast good taste can go out the window when big bucks come flooding in the front door.
I’m not one of those snobby purists who turn up their fastidious noses at such user-friendly artists as Diana Krall and John Pizzarelli. I like it when smart musicians reach out to a popular audience, as long as they do so without pandering.
Unfortunately, there is a huge gap between what Krall is doing when she sings Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love” and what Norah Jones is doing when she sings Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart.” Both are popular, but the first is jazz and the second isn’t. To pretend otherwise is to run the risk of defining jazz down–and, eventually, out.