Thank heaven Norah Jones ditched jazz… and thank the stars she came back. Not that she ever entirely went away, or probably cares about our genre distinctions much anyway, but her sold-out show at L.A.’s Theatre at Ace Hotel this week felt like a sort of homecoming, making good live on what she’d delivered on her most recent album, 2016’s “Day Breaks.” It was a return to a minimalist jazz combo format and sound, but not coming back with her tail between her legs; her current music is much too informed by her forays into rock and Americana for that. No one should have been fooled by the minimal drums-bass-organ backing into thinking Jones has gone into a state of regress: Even back on her most familiar musical turf, Jones rocks.
At the Ace show (the middle of three SoCal gigs that included a night at Santa Barbara’s Arlington and a weekend rock festival in Dana Point), Jones opened with “Cold Cold Heart,” the Hank Williams cover that helped establish her genre fluidity when she included it on her debut, “Come Away With Me,” in 2002. Later, she did a gorgeously plaintive version of Tom Petty’s underrated “Angel Dream.” (Jones is no Jenny-come-lately when it comes to appreciating Petty. Her tributes to the late rocker go back `into the pre-posthumous realm, as she sang two others of his songs at the local PettyFest salute at the Fonda in 2016 and at the MusiCares benefit in 2017.)
But, those examples notwithstanding, covers are not really her thing, so much. She could easily have had the Diana Krall career (not that there’s anything wrong with the Diana Krall career) by emphasizing, if not the Great American Songbook, jazzy versions of the great pop-rock songbook on tour in giant sheds around America every summer. At the very least, she could have focused on romantic material, of the sort that helped push “Come Away With Me” to diamond (10-million-selling) status and five Grammys. But, beyond drifting in and out of that seminal pop-jazz style, she’s chosen to focus on original material that often has a more ambiguous tone, and to do it in intimate theater settings rather than for the wine-and-picnic-baskets crowd. Jones is the Full Package in many ways — stunningly gifted, stunningly beautiful — but there are two things she isn’t: outgoing or obvious. Her persona and music have a bit of mystery to them, and you get to plumb the mystery up close in the reasonably intimate halls she chooses to fill.
As recently as last year, Jones was touring with a guitarist in the band (and/or occasionally picking one up herself). But the current concert configuration is dialed further down to basics, with Christopher Thomas on stand-up bass (and very occasionally the electric version), organist Pete Remm, and Jones on piano at the dead center of the stage, directly in front of drummer Brian Blade. If you were seated in the center of the auditorium, you got to see Jones and Blade as if through a tunnel, and a study in possible personality contrasts. The singer maintained a wistful or at least sober expression, rarely speaking to the crowd. The drummer didn’t speak himself, of course, but he was all smiles behind her… and who wouldn’t grin, or shouldn’t, finding amazing rhythmic pockets like the ones he did, locking in with this world-class of an ensemble? Blade was kind of the master showman of the evening and, with that smile, a bit of an audience surrogate on stage, too.
(L.A, audiences will soon get to see more of the estimable Blade. As a drummer who backed Joni Mitchell on three of her latter-day albums, he is one a co-musical director/arranger for the upcoming “Joni 75” all-star tribute concerts at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Nov. 6-7. Jones will be there too.)
One of the groove-iest songs of her set was the nimbly funky “Begin Again,” apparently a new song — and apparently a lost-love song, or so it seemed until she got to a more politically themed closing verse in which it seemed that the estranged “stranger” may be a certain country. (“Can a nation built on blood find its way out of the mud/Will the people at the top lose their way enough to stop… When we will begin to believe in us again?”) Rather than rush out a “Day Breaks” follow-up per se, this year Jones has been following the one-single-at-a-time format, so maybe “Begin Again” is in the dock for that. She did perform the three that have already come out in 2018: “It Was You,” “My Heart is Full” and her collaboration with Jeff Tweedy, “A Song With No Name,” a guitar tune that was obviously rearranged for this guitar-less combo. (The new songs are available “on the Internet… if you have an Internet,” she quipped, in one of her few asides of the night.)
Jones changes her sets around from night to night, and this just happened to be a night where she didn’t dig too deep into the “Day Breaks” album, playing just two cuts from that most recent full-length. But one of those two has become a definite staple of the set — “Flip Side,” which she’s recently turned into a medley with the Etta James oldie “Don’t Go to Strangers.” It’s a song that lets Blade happily slum a bit with a straight rock backbeat and which makes particular use of Remm’s Hammond to build up a head of jam-band steam. You could imagine it being played at Winterland in the early ‘70s as well as a downtown L.A. movie palace in the late ‘00s.
She did eventually get to the three biggest songs from her biggest album, and frankly, I was having so much fun hearing her dig into fresher material that I had a slight dread of the show ending on a possibly rote note. But she managed to give these golden oldies new arrangements that were fresh enough to clearly keep her engaged while probably not alienating the part of the crowd that onlywanted to hear these before relieving the babysitter. “Come Away With Me” was even gentler and more elegant than before, with an altogether new (or at least added since 2002) piano figure that made it sound like a moonlight sonata. On the other hand, “I’ve Got to See You Again” was rendered almost unrecognizable at first by becoming much more of a rhythmic workout, all about the slinky syncopation. Even “Don’t Know Why,” less altered, felt slyer for the update.
There’s a lot to say about Jones’ voice, even at this late date. It’s such a comforting instrument that she’d feel soothing even if she were singing the Danzig songbook. The fact that she uses it to explore trickier and subtler tides than “Come Away With Me” would have indicated is an ongoing boon. But there’s something far more revelatory these days about her keyboard playing, maybe because she’s been resisting playing the role of the stock jazz pianist for so many years now. Coming back to it, she indulges in the loveliest flights of extended balladic fancy but can also treat it as just as much a part of the rhythm section as the bass and drums. The side trips have all been worthy — even the Billie Joe Armstrong collaboration — but for her to tamp down this side of herself for too many consecutive years might count as world-robbing. We do know why she hasn’t come around every season as a jazz artist, but her recurrency is a glorious thing.