Dallas Musicians can define their fame, or let their fame define them.
Norah Jones is a card-carrying member of the former camp, as she demonstrated repeatedly Monday night at Southern Methodist University's McFarlin Auditorium. The 33-year-old singer-songwriter, touring behind her latest album, Little Broken Hearts, marks a milestone in the music biz this year: a decade has passed since the release of her Grammy-gobbling debut, Come Away with Me.
Although Jones could've easily spent the last 10 years spinning out light variations on that first, enormous success, she instead used her clout to try new things (serving as a muse for, among others, Andre 3000, Willie Nelson and Herbie Hancock) and push her sound further and further from the breezy, sleepy jazz-pop of her first record.
Little Broken Hearts is a brooding piece of work, produced by Danger Mouse, and showcasing a heretofore unseen side of Jones, that of the vengeful ex-girlfriend. The sinister overtones of a tune like Miriam or the bile-filled bounce of Happy Pills gave her 100-minute set some intoxicating undercurrents, providing a vivid contrast to her show opening cover of Hank Williams' Cold Cold Heart or her astonishing solo reading of Hoagy Carmichael's The Nearness of You, which closes Come Away with Me. Her skills as a vocalist have matured beautifully, as has her ability as a pianist; The Nearness of You fairly stopped time in McFarlin Monday night.
Backed by an ace quartet and surrounded by out-sized origami birds, Jones kept the chatter light -- although she did allow she was in mourning over Big Tex's death; "He was my buddy," she said, reminiscing about her own trips to the State Fair -- and the focus upon sustaining mood. While the evening did tend towards somnolence a few times, the final stretch of songs, culminating in a beautiful rendition of Lonestar from Come Away with Me, were as lively as they were deftly performed. (The acoustic encore, with its old-timey gathering of the musicians around a single microphone, brought new life to Sunrise and Come Away with Me.)
Jones has more than 50 million albums sold, a trophy room full of industry accolades, and, perhaps most rewarding of all, a prolific career that's as likely satisfying as it is unpredictable. Where she goes next is up to her, allowing a homegrown talent to reap the fruits of wisely choosing one path over another, less innovative one.