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By Observer Staff
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Norah Jones, an unknown for now, came this close to landing a gig on tonight's Late Show with David Letterman and canceling this interview. A guest on the August 27 show had backed out, and Jones' name, unfamiliar to all but those who've heard her play piano and sing in Dallas restaurants and New York City cafés, came up as a possible replacement. It would have been a thrilling opportunity for so young a performer without even a full-length album on her scant discography. Her calling card is a too-short EP, First Sessions, that consists of six songs--demos all, including Jones' bucolic version of "Turn Me On," made famous by Nina Simone--recorded in a day and a half. The waiting game proved for naught: Leona Naess, a Tori Amos sort, got the slot, and so Jones moves to the back of the line for now. "It would have been cool," says the 22-year-old, who sounds over the phone a bit younger. "That would have been really overwhelming. But I'm not disappointed." She giggles.
Besides, explains the graduate of the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, today is already nerve-wracking enough without the added pressure of playing her pop-tinged, country-touched jazz for Letterman. After this interview ends, she will walk into the office of Blue Note Records honcho Bruce Lundvall and play for him, from beginning to end, her first album, which she finished recording only two weeks ago. She is anxious, especially after the second of three recording sessions resulted in material with which Lundvall was less than satisfied. There wasn't anything particularly wrong with the work--indeed, three of the songs recorded in upstate New York likely will land on Jones' Blue Note debut, due early in 2002--but the songs were so far removed from the jazz-standard material that landed her a deal with the venerable label that Lundvall sent her back into the studio to repair and re-record some of the songs. "They weren't as well-received," Jones says, without further explanation.
What she does not know at the time of this interview is that Lundvall has already heard her album and fallen deeply in love with it. (After Jones played Lundvall her album, suffering through with nerves taut as piano wire, he admitted he already heard the disc. He says she didn't seem too upset.) Lundvall had gotten a copy on August 24 and listened to it on his 40-minute drive from his Manhattan office to his New Jersey home. Then he sat in his driveway at 2 a.m. and played it again.
"I was in tears, or I was yelling out in joy," says the 40-year veteran of the music business. "When you catch the magic of someone that really does have a fresh and original approach to what they do, it's the most exhilarating thing to those of us on the sidelines. Too often you hear something disappointing or just good, but when you hear something naturally great, it makes everything you do seem worthwhile. That's how I feel about Norah."
Lundvall will, on occasion, excuse his effusive praise as the breathless comments of hype; such is the nature of his job, to transform the unknown commodity into this year's latest and greatest. But his sentiments are not without merit: Jones plays piano with the feather-light touch of Bill Evans and sings with the disarming vulnerability of a child being recorded without her knowledge. Hers is a voice that bears a hint of Phoebe Snow's warmth and Sarah Vaughan's sadness, but it is no more derivative than a breathtaking sunset. And her music--most of it written by Jones, guitarist Jesse Harris (who released an album under the moniker Once Blue in 1995) and bassist Lee Alexander--is unbound by generic classifications; it's as much folk as it is pop, as much country as it is jazz. "You can take the girl out of Texas," Jones says of her music, "but you can't take the Texas out of the girl."
For now, at least, her story is that rare music-industry fairy tale with the happy ending. By all rights, she should be struggling on the local music scene, scraping loose change out of tip jars or fighting for gigs at one of this city's handful of jazz clubs. She should have just graduated from the University of North Texas with her degree in jazz piano. She should be anywhere but in New York, waiting for the release of the album Lundvall insists will vault her into a league with such performers as Cassandra Wilson, Holly Cole and Diane Krall--keepers of the torch song, the rare jazz singers familiar to a pop audience.
"It's been a little overwhelming," she says, then adds, "but not really."
Jones was born in New York and raised by her mother, a nurse with wanderlust who took her little girl to Grapevine when she was 4, moved her to Alaska for a little while "on a whim," then resettled in Dallas when her mother decided it was best if her little girl attended Arts Magnet. Norah had always played piano, been in the marching band with an alto sax and sang in church and school choirs.