It hardly seems fair to lump two female vocalist/pianists whose work touches on jazz into one review. Norah Jones and Diane Schuur come from different generations and separate schools of thought. Jones is a famously soft singer and less of a sonic purist (as of late, anyway; her Grammy-winning debut Come Away with Me was certainly the pristine stuff of MOR), while Schuur is clarion-clear and loud (though certainly nuanced), and apt to adhere to tradition above all else.
Beyond having new albums out at the same time, however, these two artists are linked by their obvious love of blues, soul, and gospel. Jones may write or co-write her own material, but Schuur holds an equal level of authorship—or at least authority—when she covers a song. Neither woman is Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey, but they get the job done in fascinating ways.
With its pastoral piano line and yawning strings, Pick Me Up Off the Floor’s opening track, “How I Weep,” is a mellow ride through an azure grove with Jones’ voice set to “shush” as she meditates on the nature of loss. While her vocals get bolder and broodier for the curious lyrics of “Flame Twin,” Jones’ snaky piano takes on a swampy mood with sympathetic backing from drummer Brian Blade, bassist John Patitucci, and Hammond organist Pete Remm. “To Live” is a gospel affair with Jones’ voice doubled for an extra dose of holy rolling. “Heaven Above” is just Jones and Wilco guitarist Jeff Tweedy, its stunning hum the aural equivalent of lingering smoke rings. Tweedy appears again, strumming an old acoustic, for “I’m Alive,” while son Sam brushes the snare, leaving Jones to craft several truly pixie-ish piano melodies; her vocal, clipped and wet with echo like a rockabilly production straight from 1956, is exquisite. On the whole, Pick Me Up Off the Floor shows a musician who’s invested in her sound in a way she hasn’t been since 2012’s experimental Little Broken Hearts.
Supported by co-producer Ernie Watts on tenor and soprano saxophone, Kye Palmer on trumpet and flugelhorn, Thom Rotella on guitar, Bruce Lett on acoustic bass, and Kendall Kay on drums, Schuur is playfully salty and intimate throughout Running on Faith—more so than she was with, say, the Count Basie Orchestra behind her. For “Walking on a Tightrope,” she jumps occasionally into a dramatic higher range while the band jukes and jives alongside her. Mad, sad, and fearful of “all the progress that’s been made,” she bounces through the simple blues changes of “The Danger Zone” like a SuperBall. Paul Simon’s wearily romantic “Something So Right” gives Schuur’s vibrato room to roam and Palmer’s silvery trumpet space to rope-a-dope. And the nearly seven-minute “Everybody Looks Good at the Starting Line,” the most gospel-ish groove here, allows everyone to have a damn good time, with Schuur at her full-throated scit-scatting best. A few guitar lines are too glossy for this reviewer’s taste, and more shadow and nuance would have been welcome in the production. But Running on Faith is spirited in every way, and that’s always a good thing.