Norah Jones breaks records at Tanglewood
by Seth Rogovoy

(LENOX, Mass., August 31, 2003) – Although Cassandra Wilson was ostensibly the day’s headliner, Saturday’s main event at the 2003 Tanglewood Jazz Festival was clearly Norah Jones’s record-breaking appearance in Ozawa Hall for a live taping of Marian McPartland’s “Piano Jazz” public radio program, which attracted 5,001 concertgoers, toppling the previous short-lived record of 3,870 set by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax only two weeks ago.

The Grammy-winning Jones acquitted herself well in a program consisting almost entirely of standards, interspersed with conversation with McPartland and just a few instrumental piano tunes.

Jones was more than a little girlish and giggly, but she was refreshingly her modest self. Still in her early 20s, the native Texan sang with a hint of a country twang and a bit of the blues, which also heavily colored her piano playing, which at one point McPartland compared to that of Ray Charles.

Jones spoke of trying to sing like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington as a child, and on several numbers, most notably “Loverman,” she displayed some of Holiday’s whispery, vulnerable quality. A version of Nat “King” Cole’s jaunty “Walkin’ My Baby” was well chosen, as was “Tenderly.”

A highlight was Jones’s version of Duke Ellington’s “Melancholia,” for which she wrote original lyrics and which sounded like it could have come right from her multi-million-selling album, “Come Away with Me.” Indeed, McPartland told her she should record it for her next album.

While the two women got along quite famously and seemed to be having a terrific time, unfortunately McPartland was not her usual self as an ace interviewer. She never found a way to get Jones to open up much past the surface – naming her influences, recounting her not very impressive musical education – and she never asked her about her own music or the amazing arc of her early career.

Instead, Jones came to McPartland -- who repeatedly stumbled through the technical requirements imposed upon her by the live taping – playing on her turf rather than pushing forward her own, even as McPartland condescended to her by repeatedly marveling at Jones’s familiarity with the so-called Great American Songbook.

Wilson brought the curtain down on Saturday’s events with a rich program of her signature vocal art in Ozawa Hall. Working with a new, small-band format – gone are the acoustic guitars and stringed instruments, replaced by piano and keyboards – Wilson also showed a side of herself unseen in previous Tanglewood appearances: that of entertainer. She was a dynamic performer, nearly as intriguing to watch as to hear, fully inhabiting her songs physically, and in the tradition of Betty Carter, interpreting them with movement and gesture as much as with her voice.

While the result may have led some to flee for the exits prematurely – maybe it was the cold air; maybe it was the late hour; maybe they came expecting Shirley Horn, who took ill and was replaced by Wilson – for those who were able to groove along with Wilson and her trio’s incessant rhythmic groove, the concert was a pleasurable ride.

Snapping her fingers, shimmying her hips and conducting her musicians, including Lonnie Plaxico on bass, Jeffrey Haynes on percussion and 21-year-old Sam Barsch on keyboards, Wilson was both regal and intimate, mining the macho boasting of Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” for its innate humor and singing “Old Devil Moon” against a Middle Eastern pulse. She turned the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville” into funky soul jazz, and put her rich, deep, chocolaty tone to great use on a pair of tunes by Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Pianist/composer Kenny Barron kicked off the evening with a set of Brazilian-influenced numbers. Backed by Trio da Paz, including guitarist Romero Lubambo, bassist Nilson Matta and drummer Duduka da Fonseca, Barron played long, lush lines on “Morning of the Carnival” from “Black Orpheus,” with tight chord changes sketching out the terrain of the piece before the bossa nova rhythms kicked in and flutist Anne Drummond took the lead. Matta’s “Copacabana” – not the Barry Manilow tune of the same name – featured great skittering cymbal work by da Fonseca, and Barron’s articulation boasted clarity and fluidity.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 31, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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