Norah Jones mixes old and new songs during her performance at the Hollywood… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
Since the birth of recorded music, America has known and adored its share of popular female voices, the kind we refer to on a first-name basis. Bessie, Billie, Ella, Aretha, Barbra, Nina, Diana and Cassandra . . . All have tapped into a river of inspiration nearly as old as the country.
Norah Jones is the most recent version, a singer who has internalized the building blocks of the country's sounds — blues, jazz, country and western, Tin Pan Alley, popular song and rhythm & blues — to present her embodiment of an American musical archetype.
Jones, who performed a consistent if monochromatic set to a sold-out Hollywood Bowl on Friday night, burst into the world's consciousness 10 years ago when her Grammy-winning debut for Blue Note Records, "Come Away With Me," eased into the public's ears and became a touchstone that, like Adele's "21" in 2012, cut across generations.
PHOTOS: Hollywood Bowl 2012 highlights
Managing to push into the mainstream as a jazz vocalist with a style that hadn't produced a superstar in a generation, Jones since then has offered four more albums' worth of quality, even-tempered tones.
Touring in support of her marvelous new album, "Broken Little Hearts," Jones was well aware Friday that many of the fans before her were pining for some of her already-classics, and she said as much early in the evening, but asked them to be patient.
"We're doing some from our new record," she said after she and her band had greeted the crowd with two of her strongest new songs, "She's 22" and "Little Broken Hearts." She was quick, however, to reassure the nostalgists in the Bowl: "We'll do some old songs too. Don't worry."
The singer, playing rhythm on the electric guitar, then proceeded to concentrate on these new originals, written and produced in collaboration with L.A.-based musician Danger Mouse, that highlight relatively busier, more urgent rhythms and deeper bass-tones. She mixed in a few nice numbers from her previous album, "The Fall," a disc that hinted at the departure to come, and offered even-handed, honest covers of work by Tom Waits, Hank Williams and the Grateful Dead.
Jones is in the beginning stages of a tour that will carry her across America over the next six months, with forays to Europe, Asia and South America mixed in. Her focus is on "Little Broken Hearts" for good reason. It's an album that covers a lot of ground without seeming to. Danger Mouse, best known not only for his work as part of Gnarls Barkley but also as a producer for the Black Keys, Gorillaz and U2, is an expert at texture and melody and infuses Jones' natural warmth with a certain amount of grit.
But she didn't seem interested in grit at the Bowl, and neither did the thousands of wine-sipping fans out for some Friday night music. Of course, there are worse things than sitting down in an outdoor amphitheater with a bottle of sav blanc and a beautiful voice. At her best — as on her version of Waits' ode to wandering, "Long Way Home," the seductive new "Say Goodbye" and her vocals on "Black" as part of Rome, Danger Mouse's 2011 musical project — Jones conveyed the emotion within the words with honesty and grace.
The problem, however, was the set as a whole. Throughout the night, Jones and her band — Jason Roberts (guitar), John Lattanzi (bass), Pete Remm (keyboards) and Greg Wieczorek (drums) — offered textures that arrived as a very pretty color of blue, one whose tone was as consistent and uniform as a retina display screen, filled with expert notes delivered by young professionals at the top of their game.
PHOTOS: Hollywood Bowl 2012 highlights
But as sunflower farmers and emerald miners can surely attest, working with a single hue for an extended period can make a person blind to the beauty outside their world. That's how it felt for a lot of Friday's Bowl show — she provided 90 minutes of consistency.
"Lonestar," for example, sounded nice on its own, but coupled with so many similarly tempoed songs, it didn't jump out. Ditto "Painter Song," which she performed at the piano. This lack of contrasting colors, the kind that make a live concert pop, made for a still, breezeless energy similar to the climate outside. Unlike the mutlicolored arcs on the Bowl's band shell ribboned above her, Jones' commitment to a single sonic vibe tethered her performance when it could have been floating.
"I'm trying hard to scream your name," she sang in "All a Dream," a dimly lighted, bass-driven dirge, content to explain the desire for volume rather than giving it to us.