Judge Dan Mancini's liver is drenched in Ripple.
Come away with me and I will write you a song.
Norah Jones arrived on the scene in 2002 with "Don't Know Why," a sultry jazz-pop ditty that went from chart-topping novelty hit single to "enough already" radio airplay ubiquity to Record of the Year- and Song of the Year-winner at that year's Grammy Awards. Her youth and cute-yet-slightly-exotic looks raised some music critic hackles over the Grammy wins because many assumed she was just another in a long line of flash-in-the-pan bubblegum chanteuses whose fall into obscurity would be as rapid as her rise to fame. Whatever false impressions and reflexive backlash Jones's quick vault into the pop culture spotlight might have created, her debut CD, Come Away with Me was released by Blue Note Records, a storied jazz label not exactly known for signing Sarah McLachlan clones or teen-pop cuties who tinkle amateurishly at the piano and license their hit singles for television commercials. Indeed, Jones's two follow-up CDs—2004's Feels Like Home and 2007's Not Too Late—have proven she's the real deal.
Though she hasn't repeated her pop chart success, each new CD has been better, more musically sophisticated, than what's come before. And she's become one of the best sellers in the history of her label. In true Blue Note spirit, her relatively short career (so far) has been an exercise in growth and exploration (it is a label, after all, whose catalog dates back to 1939 and includes releases by nearly every jazz luminary). Instead of returning again and again to the tiny sandbox of jazz-pop, Jones has explored everything from country, to rock, to soul, to roots music. Her voice and piano playing have become more mature, confident, and skilled. Accompanied by The Handsome Band—Lee Alexander (bass), Andrew Borger (drums), Adam Levy (guitar), and Daru Oda (alto flute, harmonium, percussion, and piano)—her live performances have grown richer and more confident.
Jones's first concert DVD, Norah Jones: Live from New Orleans was released in early 2003. It found the singer working her way through the songs on her first album with a stilted professionalism. The musical delivery was solid if uninspired. Jones herself appeared deeply uncomfortable in front of the audience. Captured on the Austin City Limits stage on June 14, 2007, Live from Austin, Texas presents a different Norah Jones—one who is entirely comfortable though still soft-spoken and demure.
Jones and the band offer up 18 songs. Most are originals, though solid covers of Tom Waits's "Long Way Home," Roy Orbison's "Blue Bayou," and the William Callery-penned "Hands on the Wheel," made famous by Willie Nelson, are also included. The performances of Jones's original songs are expansive compared to the studio versions. New arrangements provide more space for the band to solo without wandering off into incoherent jam-band noodling. The overall vibe of the show is low-key. Jones's voice is rich and evocative, losing nothing in the live venue setting. Her piano playing is impressive. In addition to strong back-up by The Handsome Band, she is joined by trombonist J. Walter Hawkes on "Sinkin' Soon" from Not Too Late, and by singer-songwriter M. Ward on "Creepin' In" from Feels Like Home as well as "Hands on the Wheel" and "Blue Bayou." Hawkes's playing is rock solid and Ward's voice proves a strong complement to Jones's.
If there's a problem with the performance, it's one that plagues modern jazz in general: The playing is a bit too practiced, professional, and smooth. There's none of the risky rough-around-the-edges playing that characterized jazz during its exploratory heights in the '50s and '60s. Once upon a time, jazz was as dangerous as punk rock. Now, it's mostly the habitat of prodigiously talented but too-mannered hipsters in turtlenecks, tweed jackets, and designer shades who feed their families making union scale as session players required to deliver notes with cool, detached precision. The Handsome Band is a talented group of musicians, but they make the performance look perhaps a bit too easy. Their confident professionalism is admirable, but would benefit from more passion.
Norah Jones: Live from Austin, Texas looks and sounds spectacular on DVD. The image has the deep-focus clarity we associate with shows shot in high definition. Presented at a downgraded 480p resolution, it still looks grand. Colors are accurate. Detail is as sharp as the format allows. The image is framed at 1.78:1 and enhanced for widescreen displays.
The disc offers two audio options: DTS 5.1 surround and PCM stereo. Both are impressive—clean, full-bodied, and with enough natural room ambience to capture the vibe of a live gig. Even though I often find the mixes on PCM tracks more satisfying on concert discs, the DTS is the better of the two presented here. Instrumentation, vocals, and crowd noise are perfectly seated in the mix. The best audio mixes for concert DVDs allow the listener to become absorbed in the performance without being consciously aware of the aesthetic qualities of the mix itself. This is one of those top-notch mixes.
Norah Jones: Live from Austin, Texas offers a fine musical performance, ideal for a mellow night at home with a good bottle of wine (or two). It won't make you get up and boogie, but it'll delight your ears.
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