Keeping up with the Joneses

The Welsh surnames of distinctively non-Welsh vocalists Norah and Sharon Jones are the same, but there's little common ground when it comes to their most recent musical offerings.

Separated at birth? Not really, but musicians Nora (top) and Sharon (bottom) share more than a last name (and unusual press-photo poses). Photo by Autumn Dewilde

While Norah's November 2009 album The Fall is a departure for the dusky-voiced jazz singer, Sharon's just-released I Learned the Hard Way is a revisiting.
        Yes, Hard Way continues along the trajectory of pitch-perfect soul-revivalist style for which Sharon and her band, The Dap Kings, are known, but it also delves deeper in the 1960s and '70s sound with a vision and focus keen enough for historical preservation. In fact, the Dap Kings' sound emanates from vintage recording equipment (Hard Way was captured on an Ampex eight-track tape machine and released on vinyl) and is explained by bassist/Daptones Record label co-creator Gabriel Roth on the liner notes of 2005's Naturally.

"Somewhere between banging on logs and the invention of M.I.D.I. technology we have made a terrible wrong turn," he writes. "We must have ridden right past our stop. We should have stepped down off the train at that moment when rhythm and harmony and technology all culminated to a single Otis Redding whine. That moment of the truest, most genuine expression of what it means to be human."

Norah's album, on the other hand, instead of sinking more deeply into the soulful, sleepy (yes, she's been called "Snorah"), molasses-thick style for which the singer has been known — since she burst onto the adult contemporary charts in 2002 with her debut, Come Away with Me — lifts free of much the languid murk that has been her trademark. Snappy, clever lyrics, poppy instrumentation, and a chic short hair cut complete Norah's makeover.

Photo by Steve Dewall

What hasn't changed is her low, slightly hoarse vocal and her casual, almost bashful delivery. But at this juncture, almost a decade into a career that seemed to take off like a cannon shot and, really, hasn't slowed much, it's a bold move for Norah to suddenly turn out a pop album. The risk? Alienating her adult contemporary audience. Especially now that Norah, at 31, is closer to that demographic herself than she was as a 22-year-old upstart. So far, critics and audiences seem to agree it was a chance worth taking.

Would Sharon take that sort of risk? The soul/funk vocalist started her own career as a young woman. She went from singing gospel in church to singing with funk bands in the '70s, but without a recording contract (according to new network True/Slant, Sharon was "told she was too dark-skinned and too fat to make it in the music industry"), she worked blue-collar jobs, including a 16-month stint as a corrections officer on Rikers Island. These days, Sharon shares the stage with (and easily outshines) Michael Bublé, but — at 54 — it took her to middle age to gain due recognition for a style she solidified decades ago.

Okay, so the two performers — both of whom play Asheville this week — have radically different trajectories. Norah can claim a famous lineage (more about that in a minute), though when she broke into pop music, it was her not-so-famous mother's last name that she chose to use. Sharon, on the other hand, came from obscurity. But take one look at her shaking what her mama gave her on Austin City limits (seriously: The woman kicks off her heels and dances the dance of the possessed) and it's obvious that she was never meant to take back stage to anyone.

So, besides a shared name and coincidentally timed tour stops, what else do these two unlikely kindred spirits have in common? Turns out, lots.

• The mama connection: On Fall, Norah sings "Tell Yer Mama"; Sharon performs "Mama Don't Like My Man" on Hard Way.

• The dad connection: Both performers come from musical backgrounds. Norah (famously) is the daughter of Indian sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar and dancer Sue Jones. Both performers were raised by their mothers. Sharon told eMusic.com, "My mom and dad separated when I was a baby; my mom would let me go down south to be with my father in the summers … Mama used to play the piano; my father sang in a [group]."

• Six degrees of Michael Bublé: Sharon & the Dap-Kings are featured on Bublé's 2009 album, Crazy Love, in the track "Baby (You've got what it takes);" Norah is often pigeon-holed with Bublé, but their single shared effort seems to be on French import album Saint-Germain-Des-Pres Cafe, Vol. 7: The Finest Nu-Jazz Selection & Ladies In Nu-Jazz.

• The youth connection: Norah sings (appropriately) "Young Blood" while Sharon sings (appropriately) "She Ain't A Child No More."

• The "cool guy in the background" connection: Norah met singer/songwriter Jesse Harris while she was a student at University of North Texas. The two later started the band that went on to record Come Away. Sharon met collaborator Roth when she was the only backup singer to show up to a session (organized by Roth) for funk/soul artist Lee Fields.

• The Brooklyn connection: Norah was born in Brooklyn, grew up in Texas, and now is based out of Brooklyn again. Sharon was born in Georgia but moved to New York pretty much as soon as she could. She and the Dap Kings call Brooklyn home.

• The name game: Sharon was born "Sheron Lafaye Jones" and was credited during her early years as a singer as "Lafaye Jones." Norah was born "Geethali Norah Jones Shankar" and at age 16 had her name legally changed to Norah Jones.

• The big-screen connection: Sharon played a juke-joint singer in the 2007 Denzel Washington/Forest Whitaker vehicle The Great Debaters. Nora's filmography includes a role in the 2007 Jude Law vehicle My Blueberry Nights and cameos in Two Week's Notice, Life. Support. Music and Wah Do Dem.

And then there's just the simple fact that both of these ladies, with their very different styles and sounds and collaborators and audiences, are both at the top of their respective games.

Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

who: Norah Jones
who: Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings
where: Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Tuesday, May 11 (8 p.m. $43-$58. ticketmaster.com or 259-5544)
where: The Orange Peel on Wednesday, May 12 (9 p.m. $20 advance/$22 door. theorangepeel.net or 225-5851)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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One thought on “Keeping up with the Joneses

  1. Bugg

    Wow. They both have the same last name and both sent you press releases. *Great* article.

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