They’re two of the biggest stars in the current jazz firmament. They both developed their chops in prestigious high-school and college performing arts programs. They’re both noted for their down-to-earth demeanors and their love of the musically eclectic. They have plenty of friends in common. But until last night (Feb. 28), singer/pianist Norah Jones and bassist Christian McBride had never played together.
The performance that brought this long and surprising 0-for-0 streak to an end took place at the Ralph Pucci furniture and lighting gallery on West 18th Street in Manhattan. It was the sixth annual Jazz Set event to be held there for the benefit of Jazz House Kids, the New Jersey-based music education program headed by McBride’s wife Melissa Walker (McBride also serves as the program’s artistic director). Short—five songs as a duo plus two jams with selected Jazz House Kids students and alumni—but definitely sweet, Jones and McBride’s set was, the bassist said at one point, “the first, I hope, of many.” More than a few members of the packed house must have been hoping the same thing.
Beginning, at Jones’ request, with an authoritative solo by McBride (which he executed under mild protest—“You really want to start this way?”), the pair soon locked into a rootsy cover of Hank Williams’ “Cold Cold Heart.” Hearing Jones in this stripped-down setting shone a brighter light than usual on her approach to the piano. To say she accompanied herself was true yet not precise enough. Striking chords at regular rhythmic intervals was the exception rather than the norm; more often, she used the keyboard to build lines that either mirrored her singing or offered counterpoint to it. As for that singing, it roamed wide and free, barely paying heed to such niceties as bar lines, following the feeling wherever it led.
Jones’ freedom did occasionally collide, in a polite way, with McBride’s deep rootedness. During the next two songs, a torchy take on “The Nearness of You” and Jones’ own, more uptempo “Begin Again,” there were brief moments when one could detect slight disagreement between the players regarding matters of groove. But you can probably put that down to short rehearsal time. And any such complaints had to be laid aside once the duo commenced a gorgeous rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine,” complete with enchanting wordless vocals from Jones.
The rest was all fun. Several Jazz House kids, including a charming 12-year-old alto saxophonist named Miles, joined in for a stroll through Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” and who couldn’t be envious of the young bassist and pianist who got to trade fours with McBride and Jones on a 12-bar blues? Of course, the night wouldn’t have been complete without airing Jones’ megahit “Don’t Know Why”—which McBride announced with a chuckle as “You Know What.” Twenty years since that song first took over the world, Jones sounds a bit more weathered singing it, unsurprisingly, her voice carrying a raspier edge. But she can still pull listeners in with a down-home whisper and then send the chills with a churchy full-throated moan. McBride’s sympathetic and intelligent backing, also unsurprisingly, was perfect for the job. May there be an encore soon.
If this description makes you wish you were there, you can be, kind of. From March 20 to March 26, a video recording of the show—which was streamed live—will be available online for a price, the entirety of which goes to support Jazz House Kids. For tickets and more information, visit the Jazz House Kids website.