The New Old School

“Can I be strong / and still belong? / If I’m not wrong / I’ll sing my own song,” croons Norah Jones. Beneath and behind her, and all around, are the aluminum-cool accoutrements of a downtempo house groove, skittering samba electronics, the mellow vibe of a Fender Rhodes.

If the scene doesn’t sound familiar, that’s because this isn’t an outtake from Feels Like Home (Blue Note), the Jones album that went platinum within a week of release. It’s from a recent disc by Wax Poetic, the East Village club collective that provided the singer with one of her earliest New York gigs. Jones’ song, “Tell Me,” kicks off Nublu Sessions (Ultra) with a sound more contemporary than her own immaculately rustic fare.

It goes without saying that the music of Norah Jones does not, at this point, “belong” to the jazz fold-but her example nevertheless illustrates a phenomenon of jazz’s vocal mainstream. Look back over recent years and you’ll find more than a few singers making a splash before their mid-20s. And unlike their counterparts in any branch of pop, these artists are rewarded mainly for sounding like a product of previous generations. Youth may provide the spark for their success, but it’s precocity that lights the flame.

The most dramatic example of this trend comes in the figure of Peter Cincotti, who made his Concord Records debut last year at age 19. The youngest artist ever to play the fabled Algonquin Oak Room, Cincotti not only topped jazz charts but also appeared in seemingly every form of nonjazz media, from Vanity Fair to the forthcoming Spider Man 2-a crossover precedent set by his one-time mentor Harry Connick Jr. At the Oak Room one night last February, Cincotti charmed an over-50 crowd with the insouciant self-assurance of a favored nephew at a family reunion. It was unclear what held the more powerful appeal: Cincotti’s undeniable talent or the fact that he keeps it tethered to the posts of crooners past.

Chief among the touchstones is Frank Sinatra, who had his own first flash of fame at age 23. Cincotti has paid his homage outright: before his record deal he starred in the Off-Broadway revue Our Sinatra. Another modern media sensation, Michael Buble, scored one of his biggest hits by covering the Sinatra anthem “Come Fly With Me.” Early-period Sinatra has become a hot property again on its own, thanks to some newly issued broadcasts with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra released on thecompilation Young Blue Eyes-Birth of the Crooner (Bluebird). Still, hindsight separates the late Hoboken hero from his presumed heirs. Sinatra may have been a boy wonder, but he was also an innovator who sang contemporary songs well into middle age. It’s impossible to listen to these wartime broadcasts without hearing echoes of Sinatra’s later, greater triumphs.

It’s no secret that nostalgia sells-and one can hardly fault the nu-crooners, whose admiration is demonstrably heartfelt, for cashing in their chips. In most cases, these singers aren’t ready to branch out on their own anyway. At the time of her sophomore album Come Dream With Me (N-Coded), a 23-year-old Jane Monheit sounded peachy singing standards but a bit miscast covering Bread. And Cincotti’s biggest clinker so far is “I Changed the Rules,” an original that aims for Rat Pack swagger but comes across as play-acting. (Tellingly, Cincotti’s mom penned the lyrics.) Verve’s latest wunderkind, Jamie Cullum, provides a sort of compromise by tackling Pharell Williams’ “Frontin'” as readily as a smugly chosen “Blame It on My Youth.” Hailed in the U.K. both for his youthful irreverence and a talent beyond his years, Cullum may well be the exception that proves the rule.

It may sound obvious, but maturity has less to do with wardrobe or repertoire than with experience, for which there’s still no substitute. Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and even Billie Holiday achieved an emotional richness in middle age that eluded them in youth. The best jazz vocalists of our own era-Luciana Souza, Kurt Elling, Cassandra Wilson and Dianne Reeves, to name but a few-imbue their work with an unselfconscious depth unimaginable for someone at the dawn of a career. As good as Lizz Wright sounded on last year’s Salt (Verve), there’s no doubt that her best work is yet to come. Monheit, whose aesthetic was once defined by naivete, has already become a sharper, smarter talent. Even the unflappable Diana Krall, who stepped into the spotlight already a seasoned pro, has noticeably evolved; her new album, The Girl in the Other Room, delivers a contemporary jolt still compatible with her style and sound.

Which brings us back, in essence, to where we began. All of the artists mentioned above have arrived at their stations by “singing their own songs”-it’s just a market reality that, for Krall and Jones, those songs have become Top 40 hits. What remains to be seen for the freshman class of singers-Jones included-is whether they can resist the codifying pressures of success long enough to grow into their art. Those few who do might someday find themselves identifying with the sentiments of a fellow former prodigy. “I was so much older then,” Bob Dylan rasped, at 23. “I’m younger than that now.”