Norah's home concerts
"The music is what Jones’s music has been all along: standards, in the broadest sense, and originals akin to the standards, all founded on her economical, artful piano playing and her extraordinary voice."
Norah Jones’s Extraordinary At-Home Concerts
By Paul Elie
June 11, 2020, New Yorker
The casual approach of Jones’s performances, recorded in her living room, suits her ideally, foregrounding her directness and natural musicianship.
Last Thursday afternoon, Norah Jones took a seat at a piano in her home and played a sequence of minor chords, humming as she did. She was wearing a striped dress, hoop earrings, and a dark cap of the kind sold in the corner groceries of Brooklyn. New Yorkers were marching, to protest the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, and Jones fit the music to the moment. The sequence of minor chords was Duke Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine,” composed for a jazz festival in Senegal in the early sixties, when the movements for national independence in Africa were full of hope and strife. In her handling, the piece was a lamentation.
Her performance soon drew attention on Facebook and YouTube, where she has been posting videos and playing short concerts since March.
With the city reopening, three months of stay-at-home orders are suddenly past, and so, it might seem, are the at-home concerts: the ensemble collaborations across Zoom, the marathons of Beethoven and Satie, the crude videos offered by classic rockers as palliatives for restive audiences. Compared with most, Jones’s at-home performances have been modest: small batches of covers and requests, played before a propped-up phone. But they represent a distinct moment in her career. Twenty years after she broke in at the Living Room, on the Lower East Side, and eighteen years after her first record, “Come Away with Me,” won five Grammy Awards and made her famous at age twenty-three, Jones’s onscreen living room has become a refuge from her celebrity, an ill-lit space where she is drawing deeply from the home piano, as if returning to the source.
As quarantine began, Jones had recently finished recording her seventh studio record, “Pick Me Up Off the Floor.” Blue Note Records had produced a lavish video for “I’m Alive,” a song that Jones co-wrote with Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco. Posted on YouTube on March 13th, the video captured the easy socializing that the coronavirus pandemic had done away with: it shows an at-home drinks party, a fantasia of food, wine, friendship, and song, with Jones playing an upright piano and Tweedy strumming an acoustic guitar. And yet the video put her music—again—in the easy-listening category, making it an accessory to jazz-and-cocktails style.
Jones posted her first at-home video the next week. The camera showed her sitting at an upright piano in a plain white room; a man in a plaid flannel shirt sat on a couch nearby, playing a lap steel guitar. The song was the Guns N’ Roses power ballad “Patience”: “Take it slow, things’ll be just fine . . .” (The video has been viewed more than four million times.) She posted a couple of videos of herself on guitar, doing songs from her rock band Puss N Boots. Then she settled at the piano, dug into requests, and found a weekly groove on late Thursday afternoons.
I’ve been cycling through the mini-concerts ever since. The videos vary in length from under five minutes to nearly a half hour, distinguished one from the next by the musician’s clothes: black shirt, red dress, green hoodie, star-spangled army jacket, black T-shirt silk-screened with an image of the Golden Girls. The room is sparsely furnished: flat-screen television, guitar, equine bric-a-brac. Each page carries a link to a different nonprofit organization. The songs are joined with the smallest bits of talk. They’re something other than performances, for Jones mostly faces the piano, not the camera. They have the air of something overheard, as if she’s a neighbor in the apartment that your apartment shares a wall with.
And the music? The music is what Jones’s music has been all along: standards, in the broadest sense, and originals akin to the standards, all founded on her economical, artful piano playing and her extraordinary voice.
Jones has always worked with bands featuring other strong musicians—whether they’re local heroes in New York or jazz standouts, such as the drummer Brian Blade—and their playing has been part of the concerts’ appeal. As she plays solo, the music is exposed, its bone structure brought into sight. “Come Away with Me,” her first hit, is more plaintive than seductive. “I Remember Clifford,” a classic elegy for the trumpeter Clifford Brown, is stripped back to a spiritual; it comes in as a request from Jones’s own mother, Sue Jones, who remembers Norah playing it over and over as a young woman in Texas. John Prine’s “That’s the Way the World Goes Round”—a Johnny-and-June-style duet when Jones did it on the road, with Richard Julian—is delivered as a matter-of-fact piece of testimony to mark Prine’s death, from covid-19. One week, Jones bears down like a student on an enveloping arrangement of a composition by her father, Ravi Shankar, the celebrated sitarist. She had been booked to play his music in London on his centenary, in April. Another week, she plays a plonking, loose-limbed, this-one’s-on-us eighty-seventh-birthday set for Willie Nelson—the namesake of her alt-country band, the Little Willies—featuring “Permanently Lonely,” a song as unsubtle as its title. “Damn, Willie, that song is harsh,” she says to the camera.
The live-at-home approach suits Jones ideally. It foregrounds her directness and natural musicianship, reminding us (as if we could have forgotten) that she is a truly great singer and a stylish pianist. It relieves her of the burden of filling the big spaces of summer jazz festivals and their outsized expectations for high volume, bold emotion, and between-song patter. It skirts the question of genre that has dogged her career: Is she a jazz singer? A twenty-first-century chanteuse? An old-soul millennial with the American songbook in her bones? Does it matter? It doesn’t. On the road, Jones has played “Bessie Smith,” by the Band, with a full band. Done at home, on upright piano, the song joins her to the most legendary homemade music of recent times—Bob Dylan and the Band’s “The Basement Tapes,” recorded in a house near Woodstock, in 1967—and winds her music back to the era before recordings, when music was made by people using voices and instruments to pass the time, express fugitive emotions, and give pleasure to others.
There are no standards on “Pick Me Up Off the Floor”; Jones composed all the songs, solely or with others. On the record, they foreground her characteristic moods of melancholy and regret. On the upright piano, they sound as dark as the songs of Leonard Cohen. “Were You Watching?,” written with the poet Emily Fiskio, is pure, smoldering accusation. “Tryin’ to Keep It Together” sounds as if it was written mid-calamity: the singer working the stiff rope of that phrase to self-lacerating effect.
“Hah—that song was written two years ago,” Jones told me over the phone. It was left off the record for balance’s sake—“Got to get rid of one of the sad ones!” she said sardonically—and then reinstated as a bonus track. “A friend of mine said, ‘You should pretend you wrote it last week’ ”—as a response to the churn of current events. “But I’m not that good a liar.”
She has been writing new songs in response to the present. “My six-year-old has been waking up in the middle of the night for three months now, and I walk him back to his room and sit and wait for him to fall back asleep,” she told me. “I try not to look at my phone in the dead of night, but I was reading about all the things that are happening. A song will come to you, sometimes, and one came to me.” She played it right after the Ellington piece in last week’s show. It’s a cross between a street scene and a lullaby, focussed on the need to “love, listen, and learn.” Unidentified on YouTube, it sounded like a standard that Nina Simone might have sung—the sound of an artist trying to keep it together in a time of protest.
Paul Elie is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. He is the author of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” and “Reinventing Bach.”