When we last left Norah Jones, she had released her fifth album, Little Broken Hearts. Her chief collaborator on that disc was Danger Mouse, producer extraordinaire and member of the bands Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells. Little Broken Hearts found Jones moving further away from her trademark piano sound and writing mainly about the breakup of a relationship. But that was more than four years ago now. Not that Jones hasn’t stayed busy since then; she has. At the end of 2013, she and Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong released Foreverly, an album of Everly Brothers songs. And the following year, the trio Puss N’ Boots — which features Jones, Catherine Popper and Sasha Dobson — unveiled their debut, No Fools No Fun (which actually was quite a bit of fun!). But there hasn’t been a new Norah Jones solo album until now.
On October 7th, Jones released Day Breaks — her first proper solo effort since Little Broken Hearts and an altogether different affair. It’s billed as a return to her jazz roots and as being of a piece with Come Away With Me, her 2002 debut which swept the Grammy Awards — and that’s true, to a degree. Day Breaks definitely finds Jones working mainly in the jazz-pop idiom. But to these ears, it’s actually a better and broader album than Come Away with Me. Her vocals are as sublime as they’ve always been but the songs feel more fleshed out, and her writing has matured. After all, Jones was only 22 when Come Away with Me was released. She’s now 37 and a mother of two.
Day Breaks includes a dozen tracks — nine originals and three covers — and features appearances from some jazz heavyweights. Most prominent is the legendary sax player Wayne Shorter, now 83 and still a force to be reckoned with. His playing is beautiful and certainly lends an authenticity to the more jazz-oriented tracks on the album. Yet Day Breaks isn’t a straight-up jazz CD. The opening song, “Burn,” smolders with a bluesy sensuality while “Flip Side” is sociopolitical pop-rock. “Don’t Be Denied” finds Jones covering Neil Young — but she’s changed the lyric from first person to third and the gender from male to female. At times, it’s hard to tell the covers from the originals! “And Then There Was You,” for example, is a love song that sounds like it could be a standard — but Jones actually wrote that one herself. Aside from “Don’t Be Denied,” the other two covers are more explicitly jazz-oriented: Horace Silver’s “Peace” and the Duke Ellington instrumental “Fleurette Africane (African Flower),” which closes the set.
I had a chance to chat with Jones recently, on the eve of her new album’s release. In addition to all her other attributes, she has to be one of the most unpretentious artists ever to win nine Grammy awards. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
In 2009, you told me that you’d been writing a lot more on guitar. Obviously, Day Breaks is much more piano-oriented. I was wondering what prompted the switch back to doing mostly piano stuff.
[In] the last few years, I’ve been playing more piano. We have a piano in our kitchen. And it just sort of lends itself to being played, you know? Also, I did a couple of charity shows in the last few years where I had to do, like, a 20-minute set, solo...So I started getting my solo set together. And I started doing [piano] versions of songs even from my last album — which is very much not a piano album. But we [did] a couple of arrangements of old songs that were totally different. Then I did another set, where I had to play 40 minutes! It was a challenge at first, [but] then it became really fun. And I think that kind of got me playing more too.
Do you find any major differences in your writing style on the two instruments?
I do. I think my proficiency on the piano and guitar are very different. On the guitar, I really don’t know how to play any complicated chords; I know majors and minors and a few dominants. [But] on piano, I know how to play whatever kind of chords. And I also tend towards more funky chords on the piano because I grew up playing more jazz. It’s just a different flavor; it’s like cooking with different spices.
Tell me a little about playing with Wayne Shorter, and how that came about.
It was awesome. I think it’s incredible to play with people who are your idols but also so good at what they do. You know, it makes you play better. I [first] sang with Wayne on a Herbie Hancock record, like 10 years ago — and that was incredible. [Then] when I started planning this record in my head, I had all these ideas sonically. I didn’t wanna make a traditional jazz standards album; I wanted to do original music and I wanted to have a certain vibe. You know, I was was listening to Money Jungle by Duke Ellington — we ended up covering one of those songs ‘cause I liked it so much. And Miles Davis, In a Silent Way. Those kinds of albums. I wanted to sort of have Wayne float and have different rhythms and all this stuff. Anyway... I basically hired his quartet without [pianist] Danilo Perez! (laughs). I was a little more nervous about playing piano [with] him. [But] it ended up being great.
I noticed the name Sara Oda in the credits a lot.
Yeah! Sara’s an old, old friend of mine; I’ve known her since I was maybe 20. She’s not a working musician, but she’s musical enough to write songs. Over the years, she’s sort of written some new songs and showed ‘em to me. So when I was looking to finish some of these songs, I asked for her help [and] she ended up kind of becoming my partner, writing I guess four of the songs. Then she came to the studio to see how it was going and she just stayed the whole time.
As popular as you are, one thing you don’t get enough credit for is the diversity of your music — both in your solo projects and also in your side projects. What do you get from playing with, say, Puss N’ Boots that you don’t get when you’re recording a solo album?
Well... I get to play lead guitar, for one! And I don’t know. Just being in a band like that is super fun. I feel over the years, we [developed] our own sound. Just like The Little Willies [also] sort of developed its own sound. I love playing small clubs too. It’s really fun with those kind of projects because there’s no expectation for me to play “Don’t Know Why” or songs that people wanna hear at my shows. It’s not like I don’t like to play [those songs]! But for me, to play in a bar somewhere, it’s fun to just let loose and play other stuff.
Absolutely. Can I ask you about a couple of the specific tunes on the album? Tell me a little about the title track, "Day Breaks."
That song started awhile ago. And it started out [on] guitar, which is the only case on this record. A couple of years ago, I had already had the lyric “Day Breaks” in [my] head [but] I didn’t know where to go with that. Then a couple of years later, I came back to it.
The last song on the album is a Duke Ellington cover. Tell me why you chose to close the album with that — and more generally, about your thoughts on Duke.
Oh God! He’s one of my favorites. His playing, his writing... The interesting space he occupies musically. I love that song. I was listening to it a lot, leading up to the Wayne sessions. [It] had some kind of vibe that I wanted to capture. When we recorded with Wayne and [bassist] John Patitucci and [drummer] Brian Blade, I kind of had run out of original songs. So I was looking to that song for inspiration. And in the end, we just ended up playing [it] ‘cause I love it so much. And it doesn’t have lyrics, so I just hummed the melody. But I like it like that.
What women in your life have been big influences on you? Either musically or personally.
Musically...Gosh. I had a piano teacher in high school that was a pretty big influence. She was a schooled jazz pianist and taught me how to think about music in a completely different way. Blossom Dearie, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone... Bobbie Nelson, Willie’s sister. Definitely my mom [too]. She’s got a big personality so she’s always been a big influence. You can’t help but listen to her, even when you don’t want to! But she’s always given me good advice when I needed it.
Photo by Danny Clinch
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Dave Steinfeld has written about women in popular music more than any male journalist in America. In addition to BUST, he has contributed to Curve, Bitch, Rockrgrl, Essence and all the major radio networks. He grew up in Connecticut and is currently based in New York City.