Global Beat Fusion: Norah Jones and Goodness from Benin & Martinique

It was shortly after 9/11 that I first saw Norah Jones perform. I went predominantly because my roommate was a jazz musician, and I was being sold on a jazz singer by a publicist. When I found out that Jim not only knew of Jones, but went to music school with her, I figured it would be a worthwhile voyage on a cold evening. Jim and I walked ten blocks to the Grove St PATH station -- my new commute, since the WTC line would be out of service for years -- and head to the Mercury Lounge where, along with roughly fifteen other people, I watched Norah shyly but quite sweetly play an hour-long set. Said publicist hipped me to the fact that "she's about to explode" when Blue Note dropped her record in early 2002 -- a hearty claim for a singer pulling in under twenty people. Still, I didn't write her off, and her prophecy fulfilled itself, and most probably financially saved a record label in the process.

What I enjoyed about Jones then remains what I enjoy today: her honesty. She has whole-heartedly attempted to defy any pigeonhole, most notoriously jazz, along with the occasional "country/folk/etc" bins. She's a solid songwriter, or at least works with solid songwriters, and performs from her heart. So it didn't surprise me that her latest, The Fall (Blue Note), diverged from her previous material. She's parted ways a little after every album. Not a lot, mind you, which is how she is able to write and perform music that shifts with her emotional and mental tides, yet remain rooted in a fundamental singer-songwriter base that never alienates her audience. She doesn't take herself too seriously ("It's him or me/That's what he said/But I can't choose between a vegan and a pothead/So I chose you," she sings on "Man of the Hour"), yet she takes music seriously. It's a winning combination, being innocuous and pleasant without being trite or cliché.

There's a lot more guitar, and more electric guitar, with less piano, at least early on. Her voice fits into the landscape more than usual; she doesn't dominate an acoustic track, but instead forms into the mold of songs with more heft than before. While I wouldn't call it rock, songs like "Light as a Feather" and "Waiting" create thick layers that lead the listener on a journey, building and building upon one another. The album's second half mellows, much more in the vein of Not Too Late and Feels Like Home. Again: nothing unfamiliar, nothing groundbreaking. Simply a fine album by an artist we feel comfortable depending on because she lives up to that responsibility.

While Jones hints at jazz, Chicago native Sachal Vasandani is immersed in it. His 2007 debut, Eyes Wide Open, was a stunning effort by a young man obviously enthralled by the classic aura of the jazz singer: piano, bass, drums, and a man in the middle singing his soul out. The only comparable contemporary I could imagine is Kurt Elling, and it's no surprise that Vasandani borrows from his playbook with "Don't Worry About Me" on his new album, We Move (Mack Ave Records). The record is a continuation of his debut, although there is a fuller, more mature energy. Tackling "Monk's Dream," with lyrics written by Jon Hendricks, is one such example: the bass-led intro smoothes out into Jeb Patton's lovely piano solo, all the while kept in the pocket by longtime drummer Quincy Davis. We Move, as the title may suggest, has a bit more gusto than Eyes Wide Open, yet expect that same sedating, brilliant voice surrounding the sounds.

Two other albums have recently exploded into my inbox that are strong contenders for the "Best of" list for '09. Ironically, they are "albums" made in the '60s-'70s in lands overseas and from other time zones than Brooklyn. Tumbélé! Biguine, Afro & Latin sounds from the French Caribbean, 1963-74 (Soundway Records) is a smoker. Martinique and Guadeloupe are not regions you see pop up often, yet these countries apparently had a ridiculous amount of Afrobeat, salsa, and funk mingling and mashing. A two-minute Abel Zénon track, "Pas O Soué La," is disconcerting only in its duration: the song has legs and could stretch to twenty minutes without losing interest. In fact, this entire collection reminds the listener that he too has legs, and hips, for it is impossible not to shake something in the process of tuning in. I'm not sure how much remastering went on, but the quality is excellent: a little dirty, a little muddled, just like the dance floors these tracks were lighting up nearly a half-century ago. As a bonus, you can check out a Tumbélé DJ mix sequenced by Hugo Mendez.

Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo de Cotonou: Vol. 2 comes from Analog Africa, a label running side-by-side with Soundway at unearthing a wealth of amazing material from decades ago. Five years back, the label received a track from this Benin-based band, and fell in love. Volume One compiled more obscure tracks in Benin; this one focuses on their time in a bigger studio in Lagos (the sound quality shows). Volume Two focused on the decade from '69-'79, a fertile time on African soil, where jazz was influencing and being influenced by the motherland, the heyday of Bronx Salsa brought awareness of Puerto Rico and Colombia to the larger world, and James Brown was being cued by Fela Kuti and broadcast to the world. Rooted in Vodoun ceremonial music and heavy on percussion and guitars, with thick, luscious bass lines and melodies as trance inducing as the rhythms, this is an irresistible find. A fine collection through and through, the call-response "Noude Ma Gnin Tche De Me" hooked and sunk me deeply into this African groove. You won't be disappointed doing the same.