Norah Jones, sultry and self-assured at the Academy of Music
It's been 13 years now since Norah Jones wrapped her arms around five trophies at the 2003 Grammy Awards as a 23-year-old piano-playing ingenue celebrating her stupendously successful debut, Come Away With Me, which sold more than 20 million copies worldwide.
And how has the Grapevine, Texas-born daughter of Ravi Shankar built a career in the wake of that impossible-to-follow opening act? By plotting out a resolutely musical path as a solo artist and serial collaborator that's avoided the celebrity spotlight -- though she did have a cameo opposite a priapic talking bear in Seth MacFarlane's 2012 movie Ted -- while quietly pursuing the intermingled jazz, country and pop interests that have animated her soothing sound from the start.
Jones comes off in many ways as an ego-less team player: She's entertained herself with the country cover band the Little Willies, played guitar in the all-female trio Puss N' Boots, and paired off with Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day on an album of Everly Brothers covers, while also employing fashionable producer Danger Mouse for a mildly experimental pop excursion on her 2012 Little Broken Hearts.
All those explorations have paid off on Day Breaks, the jazz-centered new album that's her best since her first. It brought her to the Academy of Music on Friday night, where she put on a self-assured show that drew from all aspects of her career while finding focus seated at the piano in her sultry, smoky-voiced comfort zone.
Backed by the Candles, the Josh Lattanzi-fronted Americana quartet that was inoffensively pedestrian in the opening set before stepping up their game in service of the headlining front woman, Jones played a broadly appealing show that made no musical compromises.
Opening with "Sinkin' Soon" from her 2007 album Not Too Late, she got "Come Away With Me" and "Don't Know Why" from her debut out of the way early, both with arrangements slightly altered from their familiar studio versions. She dabbled in pop with "Chasing Pirates" and worked an early '70s country-rock groove on Puss N' Boots' "Don't Know What It Means," with lead guitarist Jason Roberts trying a little too hard to achieve Neil Young-worthy catharsis.
More effective were a trio of covers, including Young's "Don't Be Denied," a Day Breaks standout that along her own "Tragedy" worked as a marvelous showcase for Jones to luxuriate in a husky soul-rock groove. Equally effective was her take on the Grateful Dead's "It Must Have Been the Roses," a savvy choice for an audience that was approximately a generation grayer than the 36-year-old headliner.
Best of all was "The Nearness Of You," the centerpiece of a mid-show alone-at-the-piano showcase segment. Mean people might mock Jones' tendency to settle into a lulling mid-tempo by calling her "Snorah," but the subtle sophistication and, above all, the tenderness of her take on Hoagy Carmichael's jazz standard offered exquisite wee-hours satisfactions.
After bringing the main 15-song set to a close with Day Breaks' Les McCann-like rowdy (for her) "Flipside" and the churchy keep-the-faith march "Carry On," Jones returned for a folksy encore. With the band gathered round a single microphone, Jones strummed a guitar and took advantage of the 159-year-old opera house's acoustics in a three-song set that culminated with a special treat: "How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart?" an achingly pretty country song in which she put music to lyrics found in a Hank Williams notebook.