Something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is, do you, Norah Jones?
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., July 4, 2002) -- The story is pretty incredible. A debut album of totally uncommercial, soft-pop songs by a totally unknown female vocalist shoots into the top 20 on Billboard’s pop album chart in a matter of weeks. Stories about the singer appear in all the major music magazines and newsweeklies, including Time, Newsweek, the New York Times Magazine and Entertainment Weekly. And on one of her first swings into the region, the singer, Norah Jones, leaps directly over the club circuit to appear in a headlining gig at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton, next Tuesday, July 9, at 8.
It’s a story full of twists and turns and side alleys. The singer’s father is famed Indian sitarist, Ravi Shankar, although you won’t learn that from her official press biography -- apparently she had little contact with him while growing up with her mother in Texas. Her album, “Come Away With Me,” is on the legendary jazz label Blue Note, but it’s a stretch to call the music jazz. Jones doesn’t claim to be a jazz singer, although she was raised on the cool-jazz sounds of Miles Davis and Bill Evans and the country-soul of Ray Charles, and she majored in jazz piano at the University of North Texas. Her press bio calls her a “singer/songwriter/pianist,” and her sound touches on soft country, blues and modern folk music. Call it “cool-pop.”
Jones’s album was produced by Arif Mardin, one of the most commercially-successful record-makers of all time, whose past triumphs have included the Bee Gees and Dusty Springfield. But the spare, stripped-down arrangements on “Come Away With Me” are unlikely to be heard on pop radio (although the CD went all the way to number 16 on Billboard’s pop album chart a few weeks back) -- they are more in the vein of Cassandra Wilson’s Craig Street-produced efforts (Street worked with Jones on a few early tracks before Mardin took over). She has a whispery vocal delivery, with a hint of a country twang, and she’s been likened to Nina Simone and Dinah Washington.
Jones is actually not a stranger to local audiences, having performed right here in the Berkshires at Club Helsinki about a year and a half ago, when she was just another vocalist in the trip-hop band Wax Poetic.
Steve Tyrell’s pop growl
While Linda Ronstadt is the main attraction at Tanglewood tonight, concertgoers might want to be sure to get there on time to hear vocalist Steve Tyrell and his band warm up the crowd for Ronstadt. Like Ronstadt, Tyrell will be performing a selection of classic pop standards like those heard on his hit album, “Standard Time” (Columbia), featuring songs including “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Stardust,” “As Time Goes By” and “Everytime We Say Goodbye.”
What separates Tyrell from the sweet-voiced singers who made many of these songs famous the first time out is his gruff, husky, Dr. John-like, New Orleans-style growl and phrasing that betrays his roots as a white r&b singer. As a songwriter and producer, Tyrell worked with Dionne Warwick, the Shirelles, Maxine Brown and former Del-Vikings vocalist Chuck Jackson, as well as a diverse crew including Woody Allen, Alice Cooper, Andy Griffith, Elvis Presley, B.J. Thomas, and Blood, Sweat and Tears.
The Linda Ronstadt connection? Tyrell co-produced Ronstadt’s Grammy-winning duets, “Don’t Know Much” with Aaron Neville and “Somewhere Out There” with James Ingram. Curtain time is 7; don’t be late.
Tabou Combo’s pan-Caribbean party
For over three decades, Haitian group Tabou Combo has been mixing Brazilian samba, African soukous, Dominican merengue, French quadrilles, and American blues, r&b and funk with the native kompas dance music, creating a unique pan-Caribbean fusion. On the group’s live album, “New York City,” the ensemble’s sound ranges from the jazzy swing of “Courai” to the Mardi Gras funk of “Education” to the talking guitars of “8th Sacrement” to the accordion-inflected shuffle rhythms of “Zapaton” to the Otis Redding-like soul ballad “Come Back My Love.”
Founded by the Chancy brothers, Albert on bass and Adolphe on guitar, in the Port-Au-Prince suburb of Petion-Ville, the group won the Radio Haiti mini-jazz competition in 1968. They relocated to Brooklyn in 1971, and their song “New York City,” which addressed the difficulty of life in exile, reached number one on the Paris pop charts in the summer of 1975. Since then, the 12-member band – which powers a Haitian dance party at Mass MoCA in North Adams (662-2111) on Saturday at 7:30 -- has been immensely popular in Haitian expatriate circles in New York, New Orleans, Tokyo and in several European capital cities. A full Haitian-influenced dinner will be available at the dance party beginning at 7, and dance instruction will be provided by Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival at 7:30.
The summer concert season at the Guthrie Center in Housatonic gets fully under way this weekend with a show by local singer-songwriter John Flynn on Friday night followed by headliner Bill Morrissey on Saturday night. The Berkshires’ own Meg Hutchinson will warm up the crowd for Morrissey.
Mark Morganelli, the trumpeter and impresario behind the Berkshire Jazz Festival taking place at Butternut Basin in late August, is in town this weekend with his own group, the Jazz Forum All-Stars, featuring guitarist Richie Hart, bassist Rick Petrone, and drummer Joe Corsello, at the Castle Street Café in Great Barrington on Friday night and the Egremont Inn in South Egremont on Saturday night.
Club Helsinki’s venture over the border into eastern New York, with a concert at the Port of Hudson on Saturday night at 8 featuring the Tom Tom Club -- a benefit for the environmental group Friends of Hudson -- just got a lot more interesting with the addition of New York poet laureate John Ashbery to the bill, along with Julee Cruise, the former singer with the B-52s and of “Twin Peaks” fame, who will be sitting in with opening act the Hotheads. Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, the husband-and-wife core of the Tom Tom Club, recently reunited with former Talking Heads bandmates David Byrne and Jerry Harrison when their former group was inaugurated into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Those not wanting to make the short trek over to Hudson to catch Tom Tom Club could do a lot worse than to catch Mofro, Northern Florida’s answer to Sly and the Family Stone, at Helsinki on Saturday night. Call 528-3394 for tickets to both shows.
“The May Street Project” (RCA)
Last summer. Texas native Shea Seger released this terrific debut pop-rock album recorded in London, definitely worth tracking down if you missed it when it first came around. Seger comes across as another in the burgeoning trend of white, neo-soul singers like Shelby Lynne and Shannon McNally. A few songs are more in the Lucy Kaplansky, folk-pop vein (with a bit of Beth Orton-meets Beck-style ambient hip-hop), and others are more revealing of her Texas roots in a Lucinda Williams fashion. Seger is a sharp, cynical vocalist like Ani DiFranco, with a pop sense like Sheryl Crow. If you like any of them, chances are you’ll like Shea Seger.[6/30/02]
“Blackwater” (Fog City)
Northern Florida’s Mofro specializes in a brand of Southern-fried swamp funk that recalls the music’s heyday, when Sly Stone, Allen Toussaint and the Meters ruled the roost. The group’s organic grooves include the raw electric blues of “Nare Sugar,” which starts out as a raw, electric-guitar blues until saxophonist Nathan Shepherd and drummer George Sluppick give it a New Orleans funk/r&b feel. The front-porch vocals on “Free” recall The Band’s country-funk psychedelia. Should appeal to fans of everyone from Ben Folds to G Love. [6/30/02]
Mofro is at Club Helsinki in Great Barrington on Saturday, July 6, at 9.
Another in our series of periodic tallies of the most-played recordings -- most new, some old – on our imaginary radio station:
1. Bang on a Can, “Renegade Heaven” (Cantaloupe)
2. Ray Mason, “Three Dollar Man” (Captivating Music)
3. Shea Seger, “The May Street Project” (RCA)
4. Jen Chapin/Stephan Crump, “Open Wide” (Purple Chair Music)
5. Ali Hassan Kuban, “The Rough Guide to Ali Hassan Kuban” (RGNET)
6. Rosey, “Dirty Child” (Island)
7. Shannon McNally, “Jukebox Sparrows” (Capitol)
8. Badly Drawn Boy, “About a Boy (Original Soundtrack)” (XL/BMG)
9. Gogol Bordello, “Voi-La Intruder” (Rubric)
10. Jewlia Eisenberg, “Trilectic” (Tzadik)
11. Sheryl Crow, “C’mon, C’mon” (A&M)
12. Dave Douglas, “The Infinite” (Bluebird)
13. Elvis Costello, “When I Was Cruel” (Island)
[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 4, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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