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Although the EFG London Jazz Festival is still in full swing, Norah Jones’s first UK gig in four years was not part of the programme. Never really purist enough for jazzers, nor fashionable enough for the pop market, and definitely not rhinestone-encrusted enough for the country crowd, Jones has always fallen between musical stools. In many ways, her success in selling nearly 50m records over her career has been in spite of prevailing trends. When she emerged in 2002 with her debut album, Come Away With Me, Eminem and Britney Spears were at their peak and the Idol talent competition franchise was starting its stranglehold of TV.
Her oeuvre seemed lightweight easy-listening, especially compared with the more serious reputations of her father Ravi Shankar and half-sister Anoushka. But in her own way, Jones has enjoyed quietly flexing her muso muscles. She has spent much of the past decade hooking up with collaborators, from old-timers such as Keith Richards and Willie Nelson to Brian Burton and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, exploring her Texan guitar-loving side rather than perfecting her piano jazz chops. But with her latest album, Day Breaks, the 37-year-old has returned to her roots, working with serious jazz figures such as saxophonist Wayne Shorter and drummer Brian Blade.
Her Palladium show was bookended by tracks from the new album, as Jones moved between piano and both acoustic and electric guitar. It was also very much a band performance rather than a solo gig, her four collaborators working up a Muscle Shoals sweat in contrast to their reserved frontwoman. Jones made no concessions to showbusiness presentation beyond a tasselled waistcoat that caused a rare flash of irritation when it got tangled in her guitar strap. “I’m really nervous,” she confessed, a strange statement from someone who plays and sings with such siren-like control.
There is an awkwardness to Jones’s introverted physicality, particularly on the rockier numbers from her back catalogue, but it is also what stops her being the boring Snorah that detractors have accused her of being. The tension rubbed against the warmth and smoothness of her smoky, lullaby voice and delicate, minimalist arrangements. Her biggest hits, “Don’t Know Why” and “Come Away Me”, quivered with an intriguing melancholy rather than girlish sweetness.
Jones doesn’t seem to want to hypnotise her audience with her music as much as herself, a feat that happened when she was alone at the piano singing Horace Silver’s 1959 standard “Peace”. It was a state of being that the singer looked as if she had finally achieved herself.