Norah Jones: …Featuring Norah Jones


RIYL: Diana Krall, Eva Cassidy, Bonnie Raitt

Since beginning with the smash hit Come Away With Me in 2002, Norah Jones’ recording career has been a study in slow, carefully measured decline. Clearly not willing to pigeonhole herself as a crooner of piano ballads, Jones has tugged away from the dulcet tones of her debut – but because she has label bosses to answer to (or maybe just because she’s smart enough to stay the course), she hasn’t totally broken with the sound that made her famous, and the result has been a string of lukewarm records that hint at the artist Jones wishes she could be, if only the stakes weren’t so high.

The shame of it all is that Jones’ kitten’s purr of a voice, while perfect for selling lattes, sounds just as fine – if not finer – out of its established context. Over the years, Jones has built a reputation for herself as a terrific guest vocalist with a wonderful sense of humor, popping up on recordings by everyone from Outkast to Ray Charles, and singing about everything from Chex Mix (on the Lonely Island song “Dreamgirl”) to motherfuckers (Peeping Tom’s “Sucker”). Sadly, neither of those songs made the cut for this collection, but you get the idea: …Featuring Norah Jones might bear the unmistakable stink of a contract-fulfillment release, but by bundling up 18 noteworthy collaborations, it does an arguably better job of highlighting her strengths than anything since Come Away With Me.

If there’s a real quibble here, it’s that the really left-field stuff (like the Lonely Island and Peeping Tom songs) was left off, and while you do get to hear Jones doing stuff she can’t do as a solo artist (like playing hook girl for Q-Tip and Talib Kweli on “Life Is Better” and “Soon the New Day,” respectively), much of …Featuring‘s charms are more subtle, like hearing her slip inside Joni Mitchell’s “Court & Spark” alongside Herbie Hancock, or her lovely vocals for Charlie Hunter’s “More Than This” cover. Taken as a whole, it doesn’t reinvent Jones’ sound the way she often seems halfway inclined to do, but it’s a damn sight more interesting than, say, 2009’s The Fall. Here’s hoping she listens to this compilation often while composing her next full-length set. (Blue Note 2010)

Norah Jones MySpace page

  

Herbie Hancock: The Imagine Project


RIYL: Santana’s Shaman and Supernatural, Anoushka  Shankar’s Breathing Underwater,  WOMAD label artists

On the surface, one might conclude that Herbie Hancock’s current release, The Imaging Project, is a Johnny-come-lately effort that builds on the model Carlos Santana rode to great success on Supernatural and Shaman.  That is to say, call in a diverse group of popular artists and have them record songs that infuse their styles with the dominant musical character of bandleader. Hancock and company certainly attempt that, but Mr. Hancock has grander designs other than just creating a hit record.  The Imagine Project is, according to Hancock, part of a global outreach strategy featuring musicians from various corners of the world to foster a kind of globalization that emphasizes mutual respect rather than a top-down cultural dominance emanating from U.S. to the rest of the world.  Does Hancock succeed in his ambitions?  At times he does, but at other times the record sounds like bland smooth jazz that never rises above level of innocuous background music for worker bees in office buildings.

The most interesting tracks (and ones that reach Hancock’s ambitions on this album) are tucked in the middle and end of the CD.  “The Song Goes On” featuring Chaka Khan and Wayne Shorter – and some blistering sitar playing by Anoushka Shankar – demonstrates what I think Hancock had in mind for this album (the same goes for “Tempo De Amor,” “La Tierra,” and “Tamatant Tilay/Exodus”). Alas, there are some real duds that take away from the potential grandness of the project.  “Tomorrow Never Knows” featuring Dave Matthews is as pointless of a cover as it is boring. “Imagine” gets bogged down in pomposity and relegates Jeff Beck to playing a solo that could have been done by any good musician with about a year’s worth of guitar lessons.  And only Pink saves “Don’t Give Up” from becoming a milquetoast cover of the Peter Gabriel/Kate Bush original.

The Imagine Project is not a horrible record by any stretch, but it continually falls short on both fusing various musical styles and finding new wine from the old wineskins of classic songs. However, when it shines (as it does at times), the music does transcend geographic boarders to create a fusion that lives up to Hancock’s stated goal for this record.  (Hancock Records 2010)

Herbie Hancock’s website
Click to buy The Imagine Project from Amazon

  

21st Century Breakdown: The iDecade: Michael Fortes’ Ten “Best” Albums of the Aughts

As the aughts draw to a close… who cares? Seriously, who really does care? Does it mean the same to you as it does to me? I ask because this is what I see:

The span of time between the years 2000 and 2009 was like no decade that came before in that, given the rapid and ever more sophisticated advances in technology, we’ve been able to create our own very unique cultural experiences. There may be no “i” in “team” or “us” or “together,” but “i” creeped into our TV viewing experiences (TiVo), our telephones (the iPhone), our computers (how about the iMac?), and – most significantly – the way we listen to music (iTunes, the iPod, etc.), which is arguably where many of our personalized media experiences began in the first place. Which is great, on one level. If we only want to hear what we want to hear at the moment that we want, we can have that experience for relatively little money, at any time we please.

But on the other hand, what was threatening to become reality pretty much happened in the ’00s – we collectively eliminated the possibility of there ever being another Beatles, Elvis Presely or Michael Jackson, someone that most of us can all agree on. Given that Michael left us mid-way through the last year of the decade, we have effectively lost our last great pop culture figure, and even he was vulnerable to the pressures of our shape-shifting culture. The one album of all original material he released this decade (2001’s Invincible) was not only one of his poorest sellers, it also sucked way more often than it didn’t. Granted, we still have two Beatles left, but even Paul McCartney hasn’t been able to produce an album that could unite all of his old and young fans the way his work with the Beatles continues to do.

Which brings us to the album itself. It’s not completely dead, and will always have a place so long as musicians think of themselves as artists and still revel in the joy of creating a cohesive work of art. But let’s face it – fewer people are buying albums (on CD, that is – digital download sales and even sales of vinyl records continue to increase, though not nearly enough to offset the decline in CD purchases). And that translates to fewer people who can come together to agree on which ones are great, and which ones are best forgotten. And fewer people to care.

Having said all that, in conjunction with our End of Decade series, I present to you my picks for ten best albums of the decade, in no particular order. These are albums that, for one reason or another, connected me to many, many different people over the past ten years, all of whom mean something to me. Maybe you’re one of them, or maybe you will be someday.

Doves – Lost Souls (2000)
Queens of the Stone Age – Rated R (2000)
Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes (2008)
M. Ward – The Transfiguration of Vincent (2003)
Brian Wilson – Smile (2004)
The Gutter Twins – Saturnalia (2008)
Beck – Sea Change (2002)
Ambulance LTD – LP (2004)
Erykah Badu – Mama’s Gun (2000)
Herbie Hancock – River: The Joni Letters (2007)

  

Chick Corea & Hiromi: Duet

Recorded live at Tokyo’s Blue Note Jazz Club, Duet continues Chick Corea’s streak of exceptional albums with unimaginative titles. Chick hasn’t released a piano duet album since his 1978 live double album with fellow Miles Davis alumnus Herbie Hancock, and while that record was a meeting of two peers, Chick’s partner on Duet, Japanese pianist Hiromi, was a year away from birth when Chick dueled with Herbie in ’78. As one might expect, Hiromi’s youthful exuberance matches – and sometimes surpasses – what was going down 30 years ago. Just one listen to the pair’s wildly playful take on Chick’s “Humpty Dumpty” and Monk’s “Bolivar Blues” may be enough to make it feel like this is the first and best time the dual piano format has been explored, not to mention the tension that Chick cleverly builds with his trademark percussive smacking of the keys during a neat take on the Beatles’ “The Fool on the Hill.” (Concord 2009)

Chick Corea MySpace page

  

Related Posts