Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

You hear her here, you hear her there, you hear her goddam everywhere. On aeroplanes, in bars, when you go to buy a toothbrush or drowsily order brunch at the weekend, there is no escaping Norah Jones. Her sweet voice with its Southern inflections is piped across the nation, and it has got to the point that just a few bars of "Come Away with Me" make me want to take an axe to whichever stereo is responsible for inflicting her CD on the weary and often captive listener.

There is a modicum of irony in this response. For, dear reader, I was one of the first to hear Miss Jones when she came to the UK just over a year ago. At that point she was totally unknown, and had only stepped up from playing coffee bars in New York a few months before. Not everyone was bowled over by her appearance at Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho. One other critic referred to her disparagingly as "little Norah Jones", the implication being that she had a nice enough voice but that it was nothing special, particularly in jazz terms. With hindsight I think this sage was on to something. Then, though, my immediate impression, although considered, was more favourable, and my review contained the kind of line record companies like to stick on a CD as an endorsement. "Her voice cannot fail to melt the stoniest of hearts - The Independent" duly appeared on the album's front cover and in the television adverts.

What I didn't realise at the time was that after the melting, her voice would have the effect of switching the deep freeze back on with a vengeance and have me longing for the dawn of the next ice age. A big factor in this is the heavy cow-plop of country that smothers her sound. Checking in to a hospital, Buddy Rich was once asked if he was allergic to anything. "Country and western music," was his reply. The same condition afflicts many jazz lovers, and although in live performance Norah Jones manages to overcome that prejudice, her album does not. Her piano-style, with its lazy blues and heavy use of seconds and sixths, is all too reminiscent of lumberjack shirts, Stetsons and straw-munching cattlehands. And unlike Willie Nelson, who once admitted to smoking a "special cigarette" on the White House roof, there's not the slightest whiff of hard-living, danger or edge to Miss Jones - or should I say Missy Jones?

Her success has been beyond anything she could have imagined, and possibly wanted. In fairness to her, it's said that she asked her record label to cool the publicity a bit. After the multiple Grammy wins, however, they could rightfully reply, Valmont-style: "It's beyond my control." But why on earth did she sweep those awards? She has a perfectly formed but small talent; with apologies to Cole Porter, she's not the top or the Colosseum, more the Sir John Soane Museum. Other singers like Dee Dee Bridgewater or Mark Murphy tower above her. Me and Miss Jones, we may have had a thing going on, but now I want a formal separation. And I'm filing for a restraining order while I'm about it too.