By Dan Ouellette, ZEALnyc Senior Editor, October 26, 2016
Entering into the elegant 274-seat neoclassical proscenium Loreto Theater at the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture in the East Village to hear the singular-voice Norah Jones officially launch her national and international tour to support her latest album, Day Breaks, I was pleasantly reminded of her likewise intimate marquee beginning in February 2002 less than a mile away at Public Theater's Joe's Pub. The occasion? A celebration of her genre-hyphenated debut album, Come Away With Me, on the prestigious jazz label Blue Note Records, which went on to become the most successful album of the year and jettisoning Norah into stardom.
Fourteen years ago at Joe's, she seemed ill-at-ease, shy, a little flustered by the sold-out show that included many media and industry people keen on finding out who this new kid on the block was. The previous year she played weekly shows at the now-shuttered Makor, a Manhattan Jewish community center on the Upper West Side, which had a comfortable downstairs performance space. She and her band played for small crowds as she experimented with her repertoire. She was timid there too, but gradually with the shows that I witnessed, she began to feel at home.
After her initial fumbles onstage at Joe's, her band kicked in, Norah relaxed on the piano and began to sing her sublime songs that would entrance an entire generation seeking a soft, tender, melancholy-tinged solace.
Blue Note label execs predicted they'd be lucky if her first recording, touched by jazz but more influenced by the singer-songwriter scene, could sell a modest 30,000 copies. To say the least, they totally underestimated how Norah's voice and her soothing music would factor into the musical zeitgeist needed for the traumatic post-9/11 era--especially in New York City a few shorts months after the twin-tower World Trade Center's terrorist collapse, but then the entire world. Come Away With Me sold 11 million copies in the U.S. and 45 million worldwide--and swept all the Grammys the following year, including album of the year and best new artist.
Now fifteen years after she was signed to Blue Note, Norah has returned with Day Breaks, her first new studio album (her sixth) as a leader--playing the piano (after a dynamic run of projects on the guitar), accompanied by a jazz rhythm section and going back to her jazz roots--not a straightahead crooner of the old, but as the personable new voice of jazz that encompasses a wide range of music from Duke Ellington to the songwriters of the day.
Previously she had been exploring: a collaboration with pop producer Danger Mouse for her fifth album, Little Broken Hearts, in 2012 and an Everly Brothers cover duo album with Green Day's front man Billie Joe Armstrong, Foreverly, in 2013. She also had fun with musical friends in the all-female collective trio Puss n Boots that recorded No Fools, No Fun in 2014.
But two years ago after playing at Blue Note's 75th anniversary all-star concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., she began to imagine what a new jazz-oriented album might sound like, especially after being accompanied at one point by saxophone icon Wayne Shorter and his band. She set out, not to do the stereotypical standards treatment, but to write and co-write new songs that could fit the jazz vibe. Day Breaks succeeds with aplomb. Just released, the 12-song collection of originals and a few choice covers (including Ellington, Horace Silver and Neil Young) has become a quick hit and a welcomed return to a mature Norah. It is the most-confident, most song-mighty album of her career.
As the Loreto Theater show on her final night started, we nervously welcomed Jones's chosen opening act: magician Matthew Holtzclaw. You've got to be kidding me, right? But rather than boring us to death, he delighted in his sleight of hand marvels and got the crowd ready for more magic.
Norah began her set in the shade of quiet, slow-tempo pieces: "Sleeping Wild" and her lyrics-penned cover of jazz great Horace Silver's "Peace," presaging more political topical material deeper into the set. In the latter piece, Norah displayed a wider breadth of her pianism--not Keith Jarrett brilliance, yet still more stated than understated in her early career. Perfect accompaniment by drummer Brian Blade (the Shorter quartet's rhythm maestro) and bassist Chris Thomas (playing guitar lines in addition to his groove heartbeat) provided the jazz feel. After Norah looked back to her first recording with a subtly longing midtempo zip through Jesse Harris's "I've Got to See You Again," Norah invited organ player Pete Remm to the stage and picked up the tempo a notch higher with certitude on the title track she co-wrote with him.
Norah cruised a section of oldies. She pushed the set from the quiet to the r&b zone with her hot cultural critique "It's Gonna Be" tune from her 2014 recording The Fall (with the poignant lyrics "If we don't get a new situation/For our busted nation, we're lazy"), followed by another sad number with an ominous piano open, "Out on the Road" from the 2012 album Little Broken Hearts, and the bump-a-bump cabaret-like tune "Sinkin' Soon" from her third album, 2007's Not Too Late.
Other flashbacks included two other debut album gems, the cover of Hank Williams' "Cold Cold Heart" and Harris's "Don't Know Why" (interestingly which was covered by Pat Metheny in 2003). The most apropos song of the night from earlier albums came with Norah delivering on solo piano her song "My Dear Country" (from 2007's Not Too Late), which was her classical-tinged salute to her nation but also a fearful, cemetery-set, election-year spook written prior to George Bush's reelection bid: "That nothing is as scary as election day."
At least half of the set was comprised of her newer songs, including the soulful, but depressing story song "Tragedy" (embellished by the gospel-flavored background vocals of Tank & Jelly), the country-vibed "Carry On," and the spot-on jazz-fueled Ellington tune "Fleurette Africane" (with Norah singing reflective wordless vocals).
More evidence of the maturing of Norah (still a young 37-year-older with two children) comes as she closes past chapters and opens the new on two songs she performed in particular: the beat-driven "It's a Wonderful Time for Love," with the lyrics "Such a beautiful time to rise/And walk away from all the endless lies/And try to see the world through other eyes?", and the rock-fired, chugging-beat "Flipside" where Norah sings, "I know who I'm supposed to be/My mind was locked but I found the key/Hope it don't all slip away from me."
The takeaway: While Norah marveled throughout her still-short career as a singer and a songwriter and a terrific musician, Day Breaks takes her much further. Based on the superb recording and her triumphant live performance, Norah has become elevated to the lofty plateau of artist. If she keeps that "finding the key" metaphor alive, she is destined to continue to only get better and fully relevant. This isn't just closing a chapter to write a new one. Norah is starting to write a new book.
The next night, another Blue Note prodigy played a smaller room at the BRIC Jazz Festival in Brooklyn. If 2002 was Norah's breakout year, 2016 is the year that Kandace Springs has risen. Like Norah has done--defying the withered--and clichéd! jazz vocalist scenario of retreading time-honored standards--up pops the 27-year-old Nashville-based Springs, a soul-steeped, jazz-drenched singer who has a bright future.
While she's made her name as an r&b singer, her Soul Eyes debut is a brilliant mix of soul, country, deep jazz and even a bit of roots pop, including two songs written by songsmith Jesse Harris--the composer responsible for Norah's biggest hits--and two songs by neocountry singer Shelby Lynne (a great choice).
The fact that Larry Klein produced the recording gives Springs' music all the more cred. Last year when she performed a short showcase in New York soon after signing with Blue Note, she seemed tentative in her delivery. My guess after hearing the new recording is that she's found her voice.
Four facts: 1) Springs works on cars, buying old four-wheelers and refurbishing them. 2) Prince was a big fan of her music and invited her to perform with him at Paisley Park in 2014 for the thirtieth anniversary party of his masterpiece Purple Rain. 3) Here Springs kills on her rendition of the great Mal Waldron's classic, "Soul Eyes." Great song, great interpretation. 4) Springs is destined to be another Blue Note jazz vocals star--maybe even a true artist.
Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor at ZEALnyc, writes frequently for noted Jazz publications, including DownBeat and Rolling Stone, and is the author of Ron Carter: Finding the Right Notes and Bruce Lundvall: Playing by Ear.
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