They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with covers of his or her songs. Let someone else do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
Norah Jones is only just beginning her fifth decade on the planet, but for two of those decades she’s been restlessly touring and recording at the most elevated level. And she’s been collaborating, cross-pollinating, all that time. The long list of luminaries that she’s worked with, in so many musical genres and contexts, is all the evidence you need of her unique talent.
Raised in suburban Dallas by her country music-loving mom, Jones majored in jazz piano at the University of North Texas. She dropped out after two years, and landed in New York City. She stuck the landing, getting signed to the Blue Note label at age 22, and collecting five Grammy wins for her debut album. Popular and critical acclaim has greeted just about everything she’s produced since.
Jones gives no sign of letting up now that she’s in her 40s. Her Puss n Boots band—an alt country trio with Catherine Popper and Sasha Dobson—released their second album in January. It features several co-writes with Dobson and Popper, and covers of Tom Petty, Helen Rogers, Paul Westerberg, Concrete Blonde, and Dolly Parton. How’s that for variety? Oh, and the next Norah Jones album drops a few weeks from now, on May 8. (You can already watch and listen to its first single, a co-write with Jeff Tweedy.)
So in terms of covers, well, we have to cover a lot of ground. Here’s a starter set, with one cover of her work, and a sampling of covers she has recorded or performed. They are just a taste of her wide-ranging interests and abilities.
Pat Metheny — Don’t Know Why (Norah Jones cover)
Let’s start with jazz, since that’s where Jones started. (She herself resists the “jazz” label, but she works frequently enough with full-on jazz legends like Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis.)
Among the first jazz giants to cover Norah Jones was Pat Metheny. No surprise his choice was “Don’t Know Why,” the first track from the first Jones album, Come Away With Me. It’s still her biggest hit. (And yes, her version is itself a cover, or didn’t you know?) In this performance on the Jools Holland show, Metheny is unaccompanied and he’s sporting a baritone guitar. While he stays true to its wistful spirit, he also shakes and stirs the ballad with key changes and other playful moves. Don’t know why anyone wouldn’t appreciate this interpretation.
Norah Jones — Long Way Home (Tom Waits cover)
Jones began to take on major signer-songwriters with her second album, Feels Like Home. Along with a Townes Van Zandt selection, she features a Tom Waits/Kathleen Brennan piece, “Long Way Home.” It’s a surprising choice musically, but a good fit for the album thematically. Waits owns up to wanderlust here: he’ll come back home, but don’t bother waiting up, it might be a while. Classic Waits, giving voice to the incorrigible ramblin’ man. We now have several albums worth of women-led tributes to Mr Waits, and maybe it’s that undomesticated male persona that is part of the draw. Jones’ rendition is faithful to the original; she smooths out its Waitsian wrinkles, but otherwise lets the song speak for itself.
Norah Jones — Tell Me Why (Neil Young cover)
In live settings, there’s no singer-songwriter Jones turns to more than Neil Young. Opposites attract, and if a silky-smooth chanteuse is drawn to the rough and raw songwriters, we are here for it. (Seriously: is there a major songsmith more ragged than Neil Young or Tom Waits?) Here Norah straps on an acoustic guitar for “Tell Me Why,” from Young’s After the Gold Rush. Supporting her on guitar and harmony vocals is Sasha Dobson, partner in the Puss n Boots project. If you like their style, check out Puss n Boots jamming out on Neil’s “Down By the River” at a Bridge School benefit. Take a wild guess who joins in on lead guitar.
Norah Jones — Ocean of Noise (Arcade Fire cover)
As for artists closer to her own generation, Jones often looks to indie/alternative bands for material. Arcade Fire, Foo Fighters, and Soundgarden are some examples. Let’s look at how Jones contends with “Oceans of Noise” by Arcade Fire, her exact contemporaries. Calexico’s cover is the more acclaimed version, safe to say. Jones’ approach is a bit unusual for her, at least as captured here in a slightly awkward 2007 performance. She invests the song with cool reserve and tension. The sonic vibe is almost film noir. She’s slinging a blood red Fender Mustang, and danger is definitely in the air.
Norah Jones — Black Hole Sun (Soundgarden cover)
So far we’ve heard Jones more or less in copycat mode, content to replicate the original material more than re-imagine it. Not true for “Black Hole Sun.” Here it’s just Jones and her piano. She frees Soundgarden’s mega-hit from its bluster and its psychedelic wrap. What gets revealed is the tender yearning of the lyrics. A spiraling piano outro conveys turmoil and loss. The performance is in tribute to Chris Cornell just days after his tragic death. A more moving send off from one artist to another is difficult to imagine.
Norah Jones — Something (The Beatles cover)
Let’s bring it to a close by listening to Jones without guitar or piano. With just the instrument of her voice (and two female backing singers for flavor). The song is a standard we’ve heard a million times: George Harrison’s “Something.” But here she’s playing it at “George Fest,” in honor of the man himself. And when the women’s voices harmonize on the last verse, you think “Yes, that really IS Something.” A basic fact worth pointing out: Harrison’s greatest inspiration, his artistic father as it were, was Ravi Shankar. And Shankar is of course Jones’ biological father. For this reason, her entrance into the spotlight here feels somewhat momentous. Some might even feel it’s a spiritual moment. Yet “Something” is Harrison at his most secular and sensual, and Jones delivers as if born to sing it.