The Subtlety Of Norah Jones

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During the past 18 years, Norah Jones has collaborated with musicians from a range of different genres.

(Photo: Diane Russo)

“I’m not going to explain my lyrics.”

With those words, coolly conveyed on a brilliant March afternoon at the Brooklyn café Bar Bruno, a smiling and slightly wary Norah Jones preempted any attempt to mine her lyrics for specifics—a move that, at first, proved deflating to a writer primed to do just that.

The poetry on her new album, Pick Me Up Off The Floor (Blue Note), a collection of 11 freshly minted songs, seemed well suited to forensic self-examination—a process that could have shed light on the thinking of an enigmatic and widely adored artist.

But her strategy made sense. Without specifics to grab onto, the listener’s imagination fills the void. And her voice—an alluring alchemy of the sweet, sultry, soulful and sorrowful—at once takes on both greater intimacy and universality.

She also can seem prescient, which, in retrospect, proved to be the case on that March afternoon. Unaware that the coronavirus pandemic soon would bring a wave of devastation and anxiety to several more countries, including the United States, Jones, between bites of a burrito, sang a bluesy excerpt from her tune “This Life” that foreshadowed the crisis: “This life as we know it/ This life as we know it/ This life as we know it is over.”

At press time, Jones’ reality, like that of most musicians, had been transformed by the pandemic. Holed up in her home, she had by late March begun streaming performances on Facebook, including stripped-down versions of an eclectic mix of tunes—from “Patience” (the 1988 single by Guns N’ Roses) to “You And Me” (which she recorded with her band Puss N Boots, a roots-music trio with vocalist/multi-instrumentalists Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper). During these online concerts, Jones was taking requests, offering advice and providing worthwhile links. By all indications, the public was responding.

Little wonder. Possessed of an expansive sensibility and a global reach, she is one of the most successful musicians of this century. Released in 2002, her debut, Come Away With Me (Blue Note), earned her five Grammy awards, and she later would win four more. According to her label, her discography now accounts for more than 50 million albums sold worldwide.

Unbound by the constraints of genre, she has performed for a wide variety of audiences—retaining her musical integrity before all of them, if occasionally at some cost.

“I never felt pinned down to make a certain style of music,” Jones asserted, even as she acknowledged that the approach had caused confusion early on. “The jazz world didn’t know what to do. The pop world didn’t know what to do. Nobody quite knew what to make of me.”

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