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Jazz Stars Explore Country Music on Sister

May 5, 2020

Social distancing did away with the beloved New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and with the scheduled appearance there, on April 25, by the trio Puss N Boots. What we have instead is the album the three women would have been promoting there, which I’m reviewing here. Thank goodness that Christine Popper, Norah Jones, and Sasha Dobson (left-to-right in the cover photo) were free to do all the close harmonizing and instrumental ensembling they wanted to when they recorded Sister a year ago, at The Loft in Chicago. The result, released this week on Blue Note Records, is a simply delightful serving of cover and original songs, showcasing both an engaging ensemble sound and individual and collective songwriting skills.

The women have so far been better known individually or in other collaborations. Dobson, raised in Santa Cruz, comes from a family highlighted at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1991, when she was 12. Her father, the late Smith Dobson IV, was a popular jazz pianist long associated with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson; her mother, Gail Dobson, is a longtime jazz vocalist and teacher; and her brother Smith Dobson V, is a drummer, vibraphonist, and saxophonist. Popper has played bass with country singer Kenny Chesney and the Rolling Stones. And Jones, daughter of music producer Sue Jones and the late sitar master Ravi Shankar, had scored several Grammys and multi-platinum record sales before hooking up with Dobson in 2008 to learn and perform on guitar. Popper joined the pair for informal gigs for friends, in and around Brooklyn.

“Finally, we sounded like a band enough to where we thought we’d make a record,” Jones told Sirius XM. Their debut, No Fools, No Fun, was released in 2014 by Blue Note, the jazz-based label for which Jones had recorded her own breakthrough album, Come Away With Me, in 2002. Wikipedia categorized Puss N Boots as “an American alternative country band,” but like Jones herself, this sophomore album flies beyond pigeonholes. The opening track, “Jamola,” the album’s only instrumental, sounds somewhere between indie surf and exotica, with the trio intoning in pretty vocalese, as if trying to attract placement on a David Lynch soundtrack.

A close read of the 6-point-font liner notes reveals a singular instrumental quality of this talented group: they all switch off between guitar, bass, and drums, though the principal players are Jones, Popper, and Dobson, respectively. Vocal assignments are also rotated, with each singing lead on her own originals as well as on various of the covers and the collective compositions.

One of the latter, the second track, “It’s Not Easy,” well deserves its prerelease as a single. It sets a tone for the album in its alluringly simple production and arrangement, with Jones pleading the first verse with a velvet, feline voice in a gorgeous melody line, reinforced on the second by the sweet harmonies of her musical sisters. This is one of the closest of the album’s offerings to alt-country. “Nothing You Can Do,” by Dobson, is closer to cowpunk, suited to the songwriter’s vocals, lingering less on tone. On her “Lucky,” Potter affects a vocal vulnerability, and Jones enhances the simple harmonic structure with touches of piano and pump organ.

Dobson gets to both sing and, on bass, briefly solo (there aren’t many of these) on her “You and Me,” which could be borrowed as hit material by a country biggie like Shania Twain. Even readier for a country close-up, with a cantering rhythm, is Jones’s “You Don’t Know,” which she delivers with a hint of a Patsy Cline yodel, backed by her twangy guitar work. The repeated title in the chorus wants to be sung along to in a barroom, once we’re allowed back into them.

Numbers like Dobson’s “The Great Romancer,” while moodily slow, are elevated by the credible like-mindedness of the group, maintained throughout. The trio’s take on Paul Westerberg’s “It’s a Wonderful Lie” is arguably more ear-friendly than his original, with the pairing of Popper’s guitar and Dobson’s electric bass adding some country flavoring to the mix. The collective title tune, “Sister”, is a simple rocker with a slinky melodic/lyric line, rather evocative of The Pretenders. You might summon memories of a blood sister act, the McGarrigles, listening to the tight, pretty tones of Potter’s “The Razor Song.”

Jones could be beckoning the differently attractive voice of the late Tom Petty when she sings his “Angel Dream,” though she gets closer to the tune’s country potential. The group changes up smartly for Helen Rogers’s “Same Old Bullshit,” which must be partly responsible for the album’s Parental Advisory, though the lyrics, with Dobson perhaps channeling Chrissie Hynde, are as ticklish as they are brutally honest. Potter’s standing in for Johnette Napolitano on the latter’s song of forgiveness, “Joey,” appeals in an approachable manner different from the songwriter’s, supported by the minimal but crisp drumming of Dobson heard to good effect also on other tracks.

The album ends more country than alt with Dolly Parton’s “The Grass Is Blue.” Jones’s credible and sensual reading of the lyric is impelling, her electric guitar a perfect fit. Popper’s bass and Dobson’s drums are interwoven prettily, and the song concludes with celestial warbling over an unresolved minor chord. Dolly must be beaming somewhere in Nashville.

Unique in their sharing of spirit and their interchangeability, Puss N Boots has also managed to maintain the feeling of generous offering with which they first greeted their friends in public. Let’s hope that when things open up again, the trio will get a quick and intimate booking in these parts. In the meantime, check out Dobson’s self-produced (with a little help from Don Was) EP, Simple Things (on Amazon Music), and Jones’s Pick Me Up Off the Floor, due out on Blue Note next month.

Jeff Kaliss has featured and reviewed classical, jazz, rock, and world musics and other entertainment for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is the author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books) and numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries, album liner notes, and festival program notes.