NORAH JONES: ‘Day Breaks’ (Blue Note/Virgin/EMI)

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The chanteuse’s sixth album has been heralded as marking her return to the piano, the instrument that she had neglected of late and which helped define the sound of her first two albums (‘Come Away With Me’ and ‘Feels Like Home’) back in the early noughties. Superficially, at least,  ‘Day Breaks’ certainly bears some similarities with the singer’s early work given the fact that she accompanies herself on piano and explores a subdued, late-night, jazz-tinged mode. But though it’s a reprise of the piano-led approach and style that first seduced the world fourteen years ago, the sense of beguiling innocence that Norah Jones seemed to epitomise back then has long gone.

This is a different Norah Jones. One who’s more experienced in life, worldly-wise and even slightly cynical, perhaps. Not that her innocence has been tainted; rather, she has blossomed into a mature adult. This is reflected not just in her voice, which is still spellbindingly beautiful but with darker, more weathered tones and textures, but also her material, much of it self-written. ‘Flipside’ is a good case in point. It’s taut, edgy and sparse, with Jones’ piano subtly shadowed by Dr. Lonnie Smith’s ghostly slivers of Hammond B3 over a driving beat propelled by Brian Blade’s drums. “Put the guns away or we’ll all going to lose,” she sings, and it’s not clear whether it’s referring to a tense, destructive relationship or alluding to the gun violence that is tearing apart communities in her native USA. ‘Burn,’ the album’s opener, is mellower groove-wise but is another dark song; a noir-esque depiction of a doomed relationship. Here, Wayne Shorter’s saxophone offers eloquent asides over a fluid, almost serpentine rhythm track.

Another song, ‘Tragedy,’ despite its title, is not as  gloomy and is lit up by Jones’ uplifting vocal and an infectious chorus. She also shines on the gospel-infused country-soul of ‘Carry On,’ the set’s first single, while the sultry ‘Sleeping Wild’ uses Hispanic flourishes – and a string orchestra – to create a haunting atmosphere. There’s a deeper soporific ambience to the dreamy waltz-time ballad, ‘And Then There Was You,’ where Jones plays a lovely piano solo backed by elegant string washes. Aside from original songs, there are three covers – Neil Young’s ‘Don’t Be Denied,’ Horace Silver’s ‘Peace’ and Duke Ellington’s ‘Fleurette Africane,’ all of which are beautifully rendered in Jones’ inimitable way. Overall, this is a perfect record for the wee small hours and one that should reclaim some of those listeners who weren’t able to follow the singer-songwriter down some of the more left-field musical paths she has explored in more recent years.

(CW) 4/5 (Release date: October 7th)