Narendra Kusnur's music musings …


norah2

It’s not the pale moon that excites me
That thrills and delights me
Oh no, it’s just the nearness of you

THE band had taken a break, when Norah Jones began the opening lines of the 75-year-old jazz standard ‘The Nearness of You’, with her piano providing the perfect backdrop for her solo rendition. She had sung the song in her Grammy-winning 2002 album ‘Come Away With Me’, and also made an appearance rendering it in the film ‘Two Weeks Notice’. This time, it was one of the clear highlights of her show at Mumbai’s Turf Club on March 3.

In her 90-minute set, Norah also rendered her biggest hits ‘Come Away With Me’, ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Don’t’ Know Why’, besides ‘Happy Pills’, ‘Miriam’, ‘Say Goodbye’, ‘Lone Star’ and ‘What Am I To You?’, among others. Her back-up band was superb, using keyboards and Hammond organ, electric guitars, bass and drums, and on some of the rearranged country-converted numbers, a double bass, acoustic guitar and accordion.

After the smash success of her first two albums, Norah’s recent recordings have tended to get repetitive and formula-driven. This is something we covered in the blog ‘The rise and stagnancy of Norah Jones’, posted on June 4 last year. Yet, despite much variety in terms of compositions, her live show was a true surprise, moreso because one would have expected her to sound better in a closed, intimate setting, rather than an open-air venue like the Turf Club. She sang beautifully and consistently.

That much about Norah’s performance, which she dedicated to her father, the late Pandit Ravi Shankar. Let’s now talk of the ever-so-popular ‘The Nearness Of You’, with which we began this feature.

Composed in 1938 by Hoagy Carmichael with lyrics by Ned Washington, this is one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. A marvellous tune, often backed by piano, and wonderful and simple words make it a classic. After the opening lines mentioned above, it continues with:

It isn’t your sweet conversation
That brings this sensation
Oh no, it’s just the nearness of you

When you’re in my arms
And I feel you so close to me
All my wildest dreams came true

I need no soft lights to enchant me
If you will only grant me
The right to hold you ever so tight
And to feel in the night
The nearness of you

Interestingly, it is also one of the most-covered songs ever. Like the other great standards ‘Summertime’, ‘Autumn Leaves’, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’, ‘The Girl from Ipanema’, ‘My Funny Valentine’, ‘Nature Boy’ and ‘Fever’, it has been performed by numerous artistes in a variety of styles. And while Norah’s version is definitely popular among her fans, there have been many breath-taking and lesser-known versions by others.

The song was first featured in the 1938 film Romance In The Dark. The first really popular version, which begins with a long orchestral passage, was recorded by bandleader Glenn Miller. Ever since, we’ve had male versions, female versions, duets, instrumental jazz versions, vocal versions with jazz instrumentation, and even country, soul and blues versions.

The earlier generation of men who sang this song include Frank Sinatra, Matt Monro, Pat Boone, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby and Paul Anka. Rod Stewart has rendered it in his inimitable style, and Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards has added his own touch in a bootleg recording, playing the piano himself.

Country superstar Willie Nelson, soul sensation James Brown and bluesman Dr John have adapted the tune to their genres. And there’s an absolute beauty (this blogger’s personal favourite) by super-singer James Taylor, with Michael Brecker on saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano and Pat Metheny on guitar, on the album ‘The Ballad Book: Nearness of You’.

The women who have covered this song include Sarah Vaughan, Shirley Bassey, Etta James, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Jo Stafford,  Sheena Easton, Diana Krall and Diane Reeves, besides Norah, of course. The collaborations include the great Ella Fitzgerald with Louis Armstrong on trumpet and vocals, Abbey Lincoln with pianist Hank Jones and Nancy Wilson with pianist George Shearing.

Some of the instrumental jazz versions are astounding. The great saxophonist Stan Getz has rendered it with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, trumpeter Chet Baker has teamed up with saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, and saxophonist Joshua Redman has played a 12-minute improvisation with pianist Brad Mehldau. Another memorable collaboration was between alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, clarinettist Woody Herman and percussionist Tito Puente.

Saxophonists Ben Webster, Branford Marsalis, Sonny Stitt and Frank Morgan, pianist Red Garland, trumpeter Chris Botti, violinist Stephane Grappelli and vibraphonist Mike Manieri have also done commendable versions.

Besides these, there are many others who have covered this song. With so many fabulous versions over the years, where does Norah’s recording stand? Well, more than anybody else, she has introduced it to today’s younger generation. Though her fans are more likely to prefer her songs ‘Come Away With Me’, ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Don’t Know Why’, they have become aware of this jazz classic thanks to Norah. We wish more of the younger singers take such standards and carry them forward in a similar way.

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