Crossing Over

Vocal ease: New album by Norah Jones is long on jazz styling, short on jazz.Photo: courtesy of Blue Note Records/Clay Patrick McBride

Cassandra Wilson is widely regarded as America’s greatest jazz singer – at least among the sub-AARP generation. Time has called her America’s greatest vocalist, a 1996 Best Jazz Vocal Grammy clinched her place in a genre desperate for relatively young blood, and Belly of the Sun, released March 26, has kept the accolades coming from jazz critics, paving the way for her entry into the pantheon of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan. Wilson, who will be appearing at Carnegie Hall on June 25, can do anything she wants with a song: She can caress with a syllable, she can seduce with a phrase.

But the new disc, like most of the music she has released since signing with Blue Note in 1993, is not a jazz album. With its James Taylor and Bob Dylan covers, its folk-rock arrangements, and its tendency to indulge in multiple grooves (and perhaps satisfy multiple focus groups) only to settle into a multicultural blandness – with muted African drumming and an anesthetized Latin tinge – Belly of the Sun is more jazzy than jazz. On originals like “Just Another Parade” and “Show Me a Love,” she is still singing and strumming in the shadow of her idol Joni Mitchell, complete with confessional lyrics, decentered tempos, and fretless-bass lines. Mitchell, who committed jazz heresy when she released a collaboration with Charles Mingus in 1979, is not nearly the jazz singer Wilson is, which only heightens the frustration of hearing Wilson denying us the thing she does best.

When she covers pop warhorses like Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm,” Taylor’s “Only a Dream in Rio,” and the Band’s “The Weight,” Wilson doesn’t reinvent the vernacular material through improvisation and chordal complexity, but merely adds a well-wrought but ultimately superfluous sheen. The only tracks where you can really hear the depth she can convey are on the blues standards: Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “You Gotta Move” and an elegiac duet with the late piano legend Boogaloo Ames. Now that Verve, Columbia, and RCA have all but decimated their jazz divisions, Blue Note has jazz’s last active roster among the majors, but its most gifted singer has avoided jazz itself.  

Meanwhile, the label’s latest sensation, the sultry 23-year-old Norah Jones, also has a case of the Cassandra Complex. On her debut, Come Away With Me, the chanteuse-pianist jettisons the music for an Elektra-Asylum-style seventies show. There’s something eerie about a singer who evokes Linda Ronstadt when covering Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and confounds the Blue Note A&R man’s expectations by doing less Gershwin, more Willie Nelson. Jones, next scheduled to take Manhattan at Town Hall on June 7, sold 50,000 copies in the album’s first three weeks of release – an unheard-of figure in jazz.

She is an agile pianist and a soulful vocalist with a star’s instinct for delivery – but with such thin material with so little transfiguration, the album’s not much more than pleasant entertainment. Like Wilson, who has given a perfunctory nod to jazz standards by doling out a single one on each disc, Jones concludes her disc with a soulful “The Nearness of You,” and her delicate southern-fried mezzo reveals a jaded storytelling quality startlingly precocious for a singer born when Jimmy Carter was in the White House.  

Wilson and Jones could be doing more to keep this genre alive. Generations ago, Ella Fitzgerald would release a string of pop records, yet always manage to sprinkle some Oscar Peterson and Louis Armstrong collaborations along the way. But Wilson, approaching legend status, and Jones, getting hyped for her ingenue turn, are doing pop and little else. No one should begrudge them the right to explore other genres, bring in a few crossovers, maybe even make a little money, but they shouldn’t forget the “jazz” part of being jazz singers. The stars of Blue Note, the only major jazz label left in a hemorrhaging industry, ought to belt out a few more of them while they can.

Cassandra Wilson
Belly of the Sun
(Blue Note).
Norah Jones
Come Away With Me
(Blue Note).

Crossing Over