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Norah Jones' 'Day Breaks': EW Review

The Grammy-winning songwriter explores jazz sounds on her wonderful new album

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Danny Clinch

We gave it an A-

What kind of music does Norah Jones make? On her five previous solo albums, her songs cozied up to folk, country, blues, R&B, and Spaghetti Western rock. A compilation of her prolific collaborations (….Featuring Norah Jones), brought hip-hop to the party. Together, it painted Jones as the Schweppes of musical partners: Clearly, she can mix well with any sound.

Jones’ new album showcases another side: jazz. Because her blockbuster debut album, Come Away With Me, appeared on Blue Note Records, many listeners considered Jones a jazz singer from the start. And while she has flirted with the genre since her early club days, only on Day Breaks does she fully explore its adventurous chord progressions and luxuriate in its freer phrasing. She does both with confidence and skill, aided by input from genre experts Wayne Shorter and Dr. Lonnie Smith.

One element on Day Breaks brings Jones back to her debut. She concentrates on her piano after working with guitar on many of her releases in between. In fact, she shows greater command of the instrument than before, presenting her solos and fills as equal to her melodies and vocals.

One through-line in Jones’ sound holds: She still operates on slow-burn, singing intimately while hushing the volume and measuring the pace. It’s a wee-small-hours-of-the-morning sound yet it’s far from sleepy. Amid that groove, Jones found a sensual new texture for her voice. There’s more smoke in her tone and her vibrato lingers longer, melting into her dexterous keyboard work. During “And Then There Was You,” Jones channels a young Diana Washington. In “Sleeping Wild,” she invokes the subtler tones of Ella Fitzgerald.

A role model for the arrangements seems to be Roberta Flack’s take on “Compared To What.” That’s especially clear on “Flipside, with its roiling piano and flinty bass.

Two classic jazz covers turn up: “Peace,” by Horace Silver,” where Jones swans over the melody, and “African Flower,” by Duke Ellington, where her piano creates a dreamy dialogue with Shorter’s painterly soprano sax. There’s one “off-message” cover: Neil Young’s “Don’t Be Denied,” which Jones punches up with jazzy horns. The original compositions prove equal to the covers, running from the swing of “It’s A Wonderful Time For Love,” to the bluesy reflection of “Tragedy.” Still, it’s the relationship between Jones’ voice and her piano that impresses most. Not since her entrancing debut has she sounded this engaged.

KEY TRACKS:

“Day Breaks”

One of Jones’ most sumptuous melodies, elaborated by a voice as mysterious as mist.

“Flipside”

 Jones’ vigorous piano solo demands a major jam live.

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