The best music is often made in the most relaxed circumstances. Away from the production-line pressures of the next big hit, making music for the sake of it, even zillion-selling superstars can come up with some beautiful stuff.

Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield’s Super Session was a surprise hit of 1968 – even more surprising considering it was made over a couple of stoned, late-night jams. Keith Richard’s various jam bands – including the Xpensive Winos and The New Barbarians – take the pressure off and let Keith be the team-player he longs to be, with some kickass results. The side project – such as Jack White’s Raconteurs and Dead Weather, or Nick Cave’s Grinderman – can often take on a life of its own, seducing new fans because their leaders don’t give a fuck about hits (which can make for great rock and roll).

Norah Jones, whose 2002 smash, Come Away With Me sold the aforementioned zillions, reinvigorated Blue Note Records and launched the sensitive, pop-jazz female chanteuse for the modern age (for better or worse) would know the steamhammer pressure of hitmaking more than most. And it never sat well with her (on sweeping the 2003 Grammys for Best Everything, she said “I felt like I went to somebody else’s birthday party and I ate all their cake. Without anybody else getting a piece. That’s how I felt”). So it makes sense that she had a pressure valve of her own – her sweet, clubhouse country band,The Little Willies.

The Little Willies was formed in 2003 with Jones on vocal and piano, Richard Julian on guitar and vocals, Jim Campilongo on guitar, Lee Alexander on bass, andDan Reiser on drums. The band was formed around a love of country classics and their first album, the eponymous 2006 release, contained, among a few originals, standards by Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Hank Williams – on Come Away With Me Jones’ cover of Williams’ ‘Cold, Cold Heart’ had been a standout track, so  country was not a million miles from her brand of jazz.

And as is the easy-going, Jack Daniels’ slow schedule of a side-project it has taken The Little Willies six more years to put out their second – For the Good Times, named for the bittersweet Kris Kristofferson cover that was a 1970 hit for country star Ray Price. And they do the song proud – Jones’ and Julian’s voices smoothly intertwining like vines of sadness around your heart. Other covers fare just as well – Dolly Parton’s wise and knowing ‘Jolene’ (also famously, if more scathingly, covered by The White Stripes), ‘Foul Owl on the Prowl’ (a leftfield cover from jazz maestro Quincy Jones – this one gets the tipsy New Orleans treatment) and Johnny Cash’s two-steppin’ ‘Wide Open Road’.

During 2002-3, when almost every speaker, muzak system or radio in town was playing Come Away With Me and we were all suffering from Norah Jones overkill, her omnipresence caused a backlash which, like most pop music backlashes, was more vicious than needed – and served to obscure her jazzy musicality and very human charm for many. A collection of songs such as For the Good Times shows off her sensitivity and warmth – she really wraps herself in the sentimental blanket of these songs and her joy is infectious. It spreads to her bandmates – though this truly is a group effort – and through them, to us.

Speaking of the laidback vibe of the making of the album, guitarist Jim Campilongo says “The recordings kind of are the rehearsals. Norah will do a song a different way every time. In 2006, when we first recorded, I was kind of taken aback, but I’ve grown to appreciate her jazz approach. It’s actually gotten easier because it really is a band now.”

Jones herself adds “I always want to keep playing with this band,” she says. “And I don’t ever want to have it not be fun and just feel like work.”

And if there is one thing For the Good Times doesn’t sound like, it is Work. In a ProTooled age of almost fiscally-perfect beats and robo-tuned vocals, it is a sweet relief to let music such as this wash over one. Somewhere along the line, Music stopped being Fun and became Work – and a laour of musical love likeFor the Good Times –  very importantly – can remind us of the Good Times.

 

Published January 2012 on theorangepress.net

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