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.
And music is in her blood, quite literally: Though she's loath to discuss the subject, Norah's father is sitarist Ravi Shankar, whom she met only four years ago, and her half-sister is Anoushka Shankar, a classically trained pianist who's becoming a superstar in her own right. Ravi Shankar spoke in August to the London Sunday Telegraph about Norah, referring to her as a "very good jazz singer"; he also apologized for having been a neglectful father, a sin for which he hopes to atone. Of the Shankars, Norah will only say "they didn't have a lot to do in my life growing up." The job of raising her was left to her mother, who now lives with friends in Atlanta after spending a year in Africa as part of the Doctors Without Borders program.
"My mother knew I was kinda doing music and that I would probably end up being a musician," Norah says. "She just thought it would be better if I went to Arts Magnet. She didn't like Grapevine either. I'm not bashing Grapevine, but she just read about the school and thought it was really cool, and I am glad she made me audition, so I went from 10th grade on. And once I got to high school, I was so involved in it that it was like, 'Oh, I guess this is what I do.'"
While at Arts Magnet, Jones received three awards from Down Beat magazine: In 1996, she was cited for her playing and for her songwriting; a year later, she was again recognized as one of the best high school performers in the country. She would eventually enroll at North Texas to study jazz piano, where she cut a 12-song demo of jazz standards. She also took a few gigs around town, the best of which proved to be a year-and-a-half-long stint at Popolos, an Italian restaurant at the corner of Preston and Royal. She played every Friday and Saturday night, and it was there she practiced singing and playing at the same time--something she knew she needed to do if she was going to keep getting gigs.
"I really enjoyed it and thought I would make more money doing that," she says, laughing. "That's not why I do it, but I realized I never practiced enough to be the best piano player, but I really loved to play. I just thought singing and playing together would be best for me."
Two years ago, between semesters at North Texas, she went to New York City, hoping to get the odd gig before moving back to Denton to complete her studies. She wound up falling in with a group of singer-songwriters, including Jesse Harris, whom she'd met in Texas, and started taking her demo around to local club and restaurant owners. She got her first job working at an Italian restaurant, playing Saturdays and Sundays from 3 to 7 p.m.--"the weirdest time in the world to have piano music," Jones says. Soon, she was playing the Living Room on the Lower East Side, a homey restaurant-cum-performance space where singer-songwriters, among them Jill Sobule and Richard Barone, try out new material. About then, she decided to stay in New York, despite her mother's insistence she return home and finish school. "It was pretty weird," Jones says. "My mom was pretty mad."
One night, a woman named Shell White, who worked in Blue Note's royalties department, heard Jones play and was so enamored of the young unknown she called Lundvall and told him she had someone he needed to listen to. He told her, Fine, come by the office Friday and play me what you got. White, who is now Jones' manager, brought the singer and her three-song demo, but Lundvall made it through only two songs. "I was staggered," he says. He left the women in his office, walked down to see Blue Note's head of A&R, Bruce Baccus, and told him the label was going to sign Jones. They heard her play at the Knitting Factory, gave her a demo deal (which resulted in First Sessions, available now only at www.norahjones.com and at shows), then signed her to a six-album deal in January of this year.
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Initially, her ability to transcend boundaries worried Blue Note, once home to Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown. The label has its share of artists who fit no easy classification--Medeski Martin & Wood, for instance, or Charlie Hunter, whose forthcoming album Songs from the Analog Playground features Jones covering Roxy Music and Nick Drake--but Lundvall fretted Jones' resistance to being pigeonholed. He even considered taking her over to the pop-minded Capitol Records, which distributes Blue Note. He says she told him she wanted to be a jazz artist foremost, and the two finally struck a deal.
Besides, Lundvall says, "When Cassandra Wilson did her first record for us, it's hardly pure jazz. Same with Dianne Reeves or Holly Cole, who's a cross between pop and cabaret and jazz. What's the point of categories anymore? They all fall. This makes sense, because this is Norah's vision. It incorporates her Texas roots, her jazz roots and pop sensibilities. She reminds me of Nat Cole when he had a trio. It's a dumb thing to say, but who asked if he was a jazz artist or pop artist?"
The label isn't screwing around with Jones: For her debut, Lundvall hired as producer six-time Grammy winner Arif Mardin, who has worked on albums by Aretha Franklin (including her landmark Young, Gifted & Black), Willie Nelson, Bette Midler, the Rolling Stones, the Bee Gees, Sonny Stitt, Barbra Streisand and dozens of other gold and platinum icons. Jones will go on the road with Charlie Hunter starting this month (though she will not play with him September 12 at Trees), then start her own tour once the album is released in February. It's all "a little weird," Jones says of her accidental career. She likes to say that if nothing else, she has been lucky. Lundvall would say luck has nothing to do with it.
"The big job starts now," he says. "I think she has a tremendous, tremendous future. I have the highest expectations, but I am not saying we'll sell a million records. If we do it right, we'll start a career here. It may come with this record or the next. We're not saying we'll have a platinum record. It's not about that. If the world's right, and the music breaks through the crap we have to go through in this business, this record will catch on at radio, but it's not about that...She has the touch of God on her head. There are those who are good, those who are great and those with special, special magic. And what she has is God-given."