There's a scene in The Blues Brothers where Jake and Elwood turn up at a redneck joint pretending to be a band called the Good Old Boys. "What kind of music do you have here, ma'am?" enquires Jake of the proprietor's wife. "We got both kinds," is the reply. "Country and western."
The look on John Belushi's face sums up the attitude of most jazzmen to country music.
What then to make of Norah Jones, a singer and pianist who straddles the two genres? To some, the very idea of infusing an old standard like "The Nearness of You" with Hawaiian guitar licks is sacrilege. Jones and her band, however, carry it off.
It doesn't hurt that Jones has the looks of Andie MacDowell crossed with Kristin Davis from Sex and the City. She also has a winsome shyness that comes from being new to the bigger scene – six months ago, she was still playing coffee bars. Most importantly, however, she has a fabulous liquid voice that ebbs and flows like syrup pouring from a tin. The curly vowels ("door", for instance, becomes "doo-errr") add charm to a tone that owes very little to the jazz tradition, in which her piano-playing reveals her to be thoroughly versed. Not for her the frantic traversing of the keyboard; she employs rich, romantic voicings providing a velvet core to the light accompaniment of the drummer, bassist and guitarist.
The numbers were slow and barely troubled a medium tempo. One had the sultry tranciness of a David Lynch film, guitar chords held shimmering like the haze on a hot desert day. Another, with a gentle, undulating rhythm and simple structure, conjured folkish images of New England, all starched smocks and bonnets. Andrew Border's electric and acoustic guitars were vital in adding this sense of landscape to the ensemble, while he grinned, nodded and shook his head, totally absorbed by the pictures he was painting. A large man with the grace one is sometimes surprised to find in a figure of such proportions, he was the partner and foil to his leader. While she maintained contact with the audience, he closed his eyes, at one point looking as though he was contemplating the perfect piece of cheesecake.
There's no doubt that Norah Jones has a great future. But there is something odd about an act that can fill a jazz club one night and open for Willie Nelson a few months later (as she will do this year). Miss Jones showed off her jazz chops in a beautiful solo rendition of Horace Silver's ballad "Peace". However, a couple of numbers (by Hank Williams and Johnny Cash) were simply too country for this reviewer. Too much syrup will leave jazz diehards yearning for stronger meat. That aside, she deserves to rise above these divisions. Her voice cannot fail to melt the stoniest of hearts.