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Norah Jones: Into the Deep

With help from collaborators including Wayne Shorter and Brian Blade, the mega-selling singer-songwriter sets out on her most meaningful exploration of the jazz tradition yet

Norah Jones
Jason Moran, Jones, John Patitucci, Wayne Shorter and Brian Blade (from left) stretch out on "I've Got to See You Again" at the Kennedy Center in 2014
In 2002, with her managers and colleagues and EMI personnel including Blue Note Records head Bruce Lundvall (far left), Jones celebrates her debut's new gold status

On May 11, 2014, Norah Jones took the stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., during “Blue Note at 75,” an all-star concert celebrating the rich history and robust health of jazz’s most iconic record company. The singer-songwriter and pianist-a Blue Note artist since the start of this century, signed by the late Bruce Lundvall when she was just 21-performed a solo version of the Hoagy Carmichael standard “The Nearness of You,” the last song on her 2002 debut, Come Away With Me: by far the label’s biggest mainstream-pop success, with more than 26 million copies sold worldwide.

Jones, now 37, then sang another ballad from that album, Jesse Harris’ Indo-blues shuffle “I’ve Got to See You Again,” playing it for the first time with a diamond-standard jazz band: saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade-three-fourths of Shorter’s titanic working quartet-plus pianist Jason Moran, the evening’s musical director. The result was a stunning, bonded ascension of voice and improvisation-“something I had never heard in my life,” recalls current Blue Note President Don Was, who was standing by the side of the stage. “I’d never had that cocktail before.”

Was recalls that as Jones walked off to ecstatic applause, passing him in the wings, “I went, ‘Man, I wish we’d recorded that. It was indescribable.'” Was pauses, then laughs. “I also might have said, ‘You should do more.'”

Two years later, over lunch in a café near her home in Brooklyn, Jones looks back at that night-the giant step that eventually led to her quietly triumphant new album, Day Breaks-with continuing wonder and gratitude. She credits Moran with suggesting that she collaborate with Shorter and his rhythm section at the Blue Note party. “The interesting thing about the recorded version,” Jones says of “I’ve Got to See You Again,” “is that I don’t think I’ve ever performed it live that way. It’s a song that lends itself to stretching out.”

“Of course, it was a lot more stretched out when Wayne and those guys did it,” she adds brightly. “I just plugged myself into Wayne’s band. And it was super fun. ‘Yeah, this is what I like!’-a groove with a melody floating over the top. That’s how I envisioned Wayne and I on this record, floating over a groove in real songs.”

Three of the 12 tracks on Day Breaks, Jones’ first studio album under her own name in four years, are that ideal realized. The opening “Burn,” one of eight new songs written or co-written by Jones, and the heated-whisper treatments of Horace Silver’s “Peace” and Duke Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine (African Flower)” sublimely reprise that first summit meeting in D.C.; Shorter, on soprano sax, threads Jones’ serpentine vocal poise with decisive empathy, gently prodded by Patitucci and Blade. “I had never done a session with Wayne before when it wasn’t his music,” Blade points out. But the drummer grew up listening to Shorter illuminate Joni Mitchell’s late-’70s jazz-period records, before going on to record and tour with Mitchell beginning in the late 1990s. It was “the same wow” with Jones, Blade exclaims, Shorter conjuring “that pictorial thought that comes through in one note.”

Shorter also appears on Day Breaks’ title song, and Blade, who first played with Jones on Come Away With Me, is on all but one track, alongside either Patitucci or Chris Thomas, the bassist in Blade’s Fellowship Band. There are strings, brass and a high ratio of Hammond B-3 organ across much of Day Breaks, mostly as framing atmosphere: the chamber-quartet sigh behind Jones in “And Then There Was You”; the barroom laughter of the horns in the New Orleans-R&B lark “Once I Had a Laugh.” Was says that when he heard “Flipside,” the first recording Jones sent him from the sessions, the B-3 glaze by guest Dr. Lonnie Smith reminded him of “Time Won’t Let Me,” the 1966 hit by the Cleveland garage-rock group the Outsiders.

But Day Breaks is the first album Jones has made since Come Away With Me that is resolutely focused on that bestseller’s core attractions: the supple, emotional command in her singing and the spare, empathic support of Jones’ second voice, on piano. “It’s a Wonderful Time for Love” was an early confirmation of the record’s direction, cut with just Thomas and Blade in a single take. Even in the album’s wild card, a cover of Neil Young’s 1973 stomp “Don’t Be Denied” scored like big-band church, the fundamental urgency is in Jones’ plaintive vocal fire and the way she keeps hitting the chorus riff on piano, like hard silver rain. “In a way that is similar to Aretha Franklin, Norah is the best accompanist for her singing in the world,” Was contends. “The give and take in her playing set her voice off beautifully.”

Blade also cites Franklin, as well as Carole King, Shirley Horn and Carmen McRae, to bolster his argument that Jones is in many ways a genre unto herself. “Those women all broke through something,” the drummer says, “and Norah is in that wave. Jazz is an easily definable tradition. It can also combine many traditions that make those singers express who they are: ‘Here is my voice; here is my music.’ You can’t always put a pin on it, to say Norah is this or that. You can only say it is truly her.”

Jones admits that with Day Breaks “I wanted to make a real jazz record. I wanted to play with Wayne and Brian. But I didn’t want to do a throwback jazz-standards album. I didn’t want it to be nostalgic. Wayne and Brian have played so many different kinds of music. They could have made a pop record with me. It just became about the writing, finding the right songs. They dictated the rest.”

She is adamant about one thing: Day Breaks is not her return to jazz. “It’s more like I’m exploring the music way deeper than I ever did,” she says.

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A famously elliptical conversationalist, Shorter is on the phone from his home in Los Angeles, telling “a little story” about Thelonious Monk to illustrate how he hears jazz in Jones’ singing and playing. “Monk used to take his son to a private school,” the saxophonist says. “[He] went to pick up his son one day, and the kids were arguing about who was square, who was corny. And they were talking about Bing Crosby: ‘He’s corny, man. He’s square.’ Here comes Monk, this giant of a man, walking in on their conversation. And he said, ‘You kids are crazy.’ They wondered why. They all had that question mark on their faces. And Monk said, ‘Don’t you know Bing Crosby has a sound?’

“Norah has a sound,” Shorter goes on, “like Ella Fitzgerald and Little Jimmy Scott. A lot of people use studio effects on their voice. Norah doesn’t need it. She has that straight tone like June Christy, Chris Connor. And Norah’s got that piano in her life. A sound doesn’t need a lot to accompany it, really. Her sound swings by itself.”

At lunch in Brooklyn, Jones is open and easygoing in conversation, and almost girlish in her enthusiasms, especially when she smiles and laughs. The mother of two young children, one born just this past July, she is guarded about her private life but freely chats about the potential joys and complications of taking her kids on the road when she tours for Day Breaks. Jones only turns wary when asked for her personal definition of jazz, and even then she cuts the ice with a helpless grin. “I’ve spent so much time trying not to say anything about jazz,” she insists at one point. “It’s such a loaded word.”

She once characterized Come Away With Me as “a moody little record”-the combative modesty of an overnight sensation with an eclectic will, who leveraged her success into adventures in alternative country and stark electro-pop. Jones now concedes that for much of her mainstream audience, that quip about her first album is practically a description of jazz itself: mysterious, reflective, wrapped in midnight.

“That’s certainly how I related to it,” she says, recalling her original point of discovery, the seminal 1973 anthology The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. Born in Brooklyn, Jones was a schoolgirl living near Dallas, Texas, with her mother, Sue (by then separated from Norah’s father, Ravi Shankar), and coming off five years of piano lessons. Jones loved the instrument but grew impatient with “the practicing and discipline,” as she puts it. Sue borrowed the Smithsonian set, curated by the critic Martin Williams, from a local library and Norah copied it onto cassettes.

More research followed. She remembers dancing around her bedroom to Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song,” but was hit hardest by vocal-piano confessions: Billie Holiday’s 1952 version of “These Foolish Things” with Oscar Peterson; Sarah Vaughan’s way with “My Funny Valentine” “where the melody is all over the place,” heard on 1973’s Live in Japan. Jones went on to play alto saxophone in her teens as well as piano, and attended the same summer jazz camp as another future Blue Note artist, pianist Robert Glasper. “I grew up loving Billie, John Coltrane and Miles Davis,” Jones goes on. “It made me feel something different, introspective. Part of why I love Miles is the space. That has suited me well as a musician-a lot of space.” She cites the trumpeter’s electric breakthrough, 1969’s In a Silent Way, one of her favorite Davis LPs. “It is not vocal balladry,” Jones notes. “But it is a moody little record.”

In at least one way, Day Breaks is literally a return: Jones’ recording of “Peace,” based on Silver’s vocal adaption with Andy Bey from the 1970 album That Healin’ Feelin’. She first cut the Silver standard in 2000 on First Sessions, a sampler EP of her initial low-key demos for Blue Note. It had only been a year since she dropped out of the jazz-studies program at the University of North Texas and moved to New York.

Jones describes the genesis of Day Breaks, after her revelation at the Kennedy Center with Shorter, as “gradual.” She labored at night, on a piano “tucked into the corner between the kitchen and the living room” of her Brooklyn brownstone. “I’m definitely a natural musician first. Lyrics have been more of a learning process for me.” Jones ultimately co-wrote half of the album with keyboardist Pete Remm and Sarah Oda, her close friend and one of Day Breaks’ producers.

Ironically, before Shorter played with Jones he played with her half-sister, sitarist Anoushka Shankar, during a 1996 visit to India with a Thelonious Monk Institute band. He first recorded with the singer a decade ago, on the version of Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” that opens Herbie Hancock’s 2007 tribute, River: The Joni Letters. After Jones and Shorter reconnected at the Kennedy Center, they convened at his home in L.A., “going back and forth about maybe doing something,” she says. “I’m sure he had no idea what I was thinking, and I had no idea what he was thinking. A lot of what I wrote went in a different direction, which is why he’s only on four songs. But I just had to try it.”

For the saxophonist, it was pure delight. “There was no real talking,” he claims. “We didn’t speak music. She would play something, and I realized it was the Horace Silver thing. Then she’d do something else. It’s like what kids do in a playground-hit the sliding board, then the rings and swings and the jungle bar. We had that kind of vibe, with a lot of laughing.” It was, in fact, a lot like the way Shorter records with his own band. As he puts it, “No dictator, no nothing. Let’s fly.”

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Day Breaks is the first album Jones has made for Blue Note since Was became president; he succeeded Lundvall in 2012, three years before the latter’s passing. “It does represent a full circle for her,” Was suggests, “although it’s different from the first album. I actually prefer this one. There is greater depth to it.” He acknowledges that some of her records in-between have confused, even alienated, some of the millions who bought Come Away With Me.

“But in any field, not just music, there is a cyclical nature to your inspiration and popularity,” Was continues, “and they may not go hand in hand. But you ride it out. And I’ve seen her sales figures. She has a very loyal audience. She can always go out and play, like Willie Nelson. He can get 3,000 people together any time he wants. It’s a beautiful luxury.”

“I was lucky,” Jones affirms. “I made my first record at a time when you could still make money doing this. I can pick and choose what I want to do. Also, I’m on a label that has been super-respectful.” Lundvall was “always telling me what the higher-ups wanted me to do, but he didn’t give a shit if I did.”

Lundvall’s idea of career advice was “epic lunches,” she continues, laughing. “He would have four martinis and tell me about the old days. We’d go see music together. Or he’d give me a new record he thought was awesome. I don’t think he loved my last couple of albums. Or if he did”-she laughs again-“it took him months to get it.” Jones recalls a phone call from Lundvall a few months after Little Broken Hearts was released in 2012. “He said, ‘I just want you to know, I really like it. I didn’t at first. But I really, really do.'” Her face lights up at the memory.

“The arc of the way things have gone for me looks totally weird,” Jones says as she finishes lunch. “But it’s not like what I do is that much of a stretch. I’m not playing bebop. It’s simple music: melody, words and chords.

“I definitely don’t want to be quoted on what jazz is,” she warns, again with a disarming smile. “I’m not returning to anything. I am making music at the instrument I am most comfortable with. And it’s great.”

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