Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

Norah Jones: The Jazz singer

Pop's quietest superstar lifts the lid, writes Russell Baillie
Norah Jones.
Norah Jones.

Norah Jones has a piano in her Brooklyn kitchen. Just a small upright tucked into a corner. It's not the only piano in the place. There's a grand in her music room.

But the kitchen ivories are ones that get the most use, she says down the line from New York, even if the top of the instrument is covered in a domestic clutter of bills and the like.

"Sometimes if I have an idea, I'll go over and write a song."

It's also useful when she feels a tune and doesn't want to wake up the rest of the house - she gave birth to her second child in early July, a sister to her 2-year-old son.

She wrote Carry On from her new album Day Breaks on the kitchen instrument.

Aptly, the slow blues waltz is a homely touch on the new album, one which recalls her 26 million-selling 2002 breakthrough debut Come Away with Me with its bluesy countrified ballads.

But Day Breaks also and finds her reviving and stretching her jazz muscles. And lyrically, she's having her say about the world she's brought her kids into.

"The whole world is so messed up right now. It's hard to ignore."

Songs like It's a Wonderful Time for Love may start out sounding reminiscent of Van Morrison's Moondance, but the sentiment is sardonic. Elsewhere, Flipside's fiery soul-jazz groove takes aim at American gun culture and Peace (one of three covers among the dozen tracks) puts Jones' own lyrics to a tune by influential 1950s-60s jazz pianist Horace Silver. It's the second time she's recorded it. The first was on an EP that preceded Come Away with Me.

"It just felt really right. Lyrically it's about peace, and right now it just made sense to do that song."

But Jones doesn't necessarily agree with the line from her record label Blue Note that the new album is "a kindred spirit" to her landmark, multiple Grammy-winning debut.

"Well I mean. I wouldn't agree with that. I wouldn't say that is the first thing you need to think about, all I do is make the music. That is all I can do."

Although yes, she agrees it is her most Blue Note-iest record and a return to the piano after drifting away from the keys. Much of the Noughties saw her writing and performing on guitar, and even having a couple of sideline groups such as all-woman country trio Puss n Boots, and earlier, The Little Willies.

Her previous album, 2012's Little Broken Hearts had her recording with Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton - producer of The Black Keys, U2 and Gnarls Barkley among others, and one of many seemingly unlikely collaborators she's gathered over the years. The semi-experimental indie pop excursion didn't do much for her sales figures, though she's still one of the biggest selling female artists of this century.

In 2013, Jones recorded an album of Everly Brothers tunes with Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong.

Norah Jones.
Norah Jones.


So there must have been sighs of relief at Blue Note when it was apparent that the most surprising thing about her new album was that it sounds like her old album.

But that wasn't due to label pressure.

"My record label has always been super-respectful," she told London's Evening Standard. "I've never felt they wanted me to do something to sell records, except like a bunch of interviews, and that's not the same as 'wear a short skirt' or 'why don't you do this kind of music now'. They've always given me space to do what I want."

When Blue Note Records celebrated 75 years of being America's pre-eminent jazz label in 2014, you can bet the 45 million albums bought by Jones fans helped buy a lot of cake.

But the anniversary show also helped the singer-pianist get her jazz groove back after she sang with veteran saxophonist Wayne Shorter and his quartet.

When Blue Note Records celebrated 75 years of being America's pre-eminent jazz label in 2014, you can bet the 45 million albums bought by Jones fans helped buy a lot of cake.

She's been a fan of Shorter, now 83, whose history extends through Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis and Weather Report, since she discovered and started playing jazz as a teenager.

Jones plays piano beneath Shorter's elegant soprano saxophone and his rhythm section on three Day Breaks tracks including Peace and Duke Ellington's Fleurette Africane (African Flower) which closes the album on a meditative note. Jones just hums that one, like a dreamy jazz lullaby.

"I felt comfortable even though in my head I was like 'What am I doing?', she says of the Shorter collaboration.

"I basically hired Wayne Shorter's quartet but not Danilo Perez and I'm playing piano ... "

"Wayne doesn't really play unless he's feeling it and I love that about him. I finished singing the verses and then all of a sudden he's just there and it's so beautiful, and I'm just playing under Wayne Shorter, he's four feet away from me, and luckily I was just in the music and I wasn't overthinking it."

Just as her early albums have connected some seemingly disparate dots in the songs they reinterpreted - there's been covers of Townes Van Zandt, Hank Williams, Hoagy Carmichael and Tom Waits - the new one stretches from Ellington to Neil Young.

Jones offers a soul-shaped interpretation of the relatively obscure Don't Be Denied, changing Young's autobiographical lyrics from Canada's Winnipeg to Anchorage, Alaska to reflect a road trip she took with her mother from her home state of Texas when she was 11.

Now, she's a mother herself, and Day Breaks being her post-natal album, she's not sure if it's affected her music yet.

No, her kids are still too young to get that what Mum does for a living isn't what all mums do, the 37-year-old says, laughing.

But the growing family may restrict her a little. She has a solid touring schedule on both sides of the Atlantic in the coming months, but don't expect to see her playing in this part of the world any time soon.

"I don't know. With two children under three, that's a long way to go."

Guest list

She's sung with Elmo, Willie Nelson and many more. Here's just some of Jones' guest appearances and collborations

2003 Outkast album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
2004 Ray Charles' album Genius Loves Company
2005 Foo Fighters' album In Your Honor
2005 Ryan Adams and The Cardinals' album Jacksonville City Nights
2006 Mike Patton's Peeping Tom album
2007 Herbie Hancock's Joni Mitchell tribute album River: The Joni Letters
2009 Willie Nelson album American Classic
2010 Belle and Sebastian album Belle and Sebastian Write About Love
2011 Comedian Seth MacFarlane's musical debut solo album (she also appeared in his movie Ted and his 2014 Christmas album, Holiday for Swing)
2011 Ryan Adams' album Ashes & Fire
2013 Anoushka Shankar's (her half-sister) album Traces of You
2013 with Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day on the Foreverly duets album of Everly Brothers songs
2015 Keith Richards' solo album Crosseyed Heart

Ker-ching!

Among the female pop acts that have emerged since 2000, here's how Norah Jones' album sales* stack up.

Adele 55 million
Rihanna 54 million
Norah Jones 45 million
Taylor Swift 33 million
Lady Gaga 27 million
Beyonce 17 million (another 17 million with Destiny's Child)
Katy Perry 14 million

• Yes, she's high in the album sales but lags way behind her competition on singles.

Lowdown

Who: Norah Jones
What: New album Day Breaks
When: Out now

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