A few weeks ago, New York jazz-pop icon Norah Jones was at home with her two children when she received a startling message from her husband. “It was insane—he was at JFK on a Sunday night, and I got a text from him saying there was a terrorist attack, there was mass panic, and he was hiding on the tarmac,” she shivers, in retrospect. “And of course, there was no terrorist attack—somebody just made some noise, somebody got scared, then somebody on Twitter said there was a shooter at the airport. But there were hundreds of people running and screaming and crying, for hours. So what do you do? You just run with them—you’re not going to wait to see what’s behind them.”
“It was crazy,” the 37-year-old quietly continues. “It turned into insane chaos. All over nothing. People are just so on edge.” It’s that angst-ridden cultural zeitgeist—wherein modern society trembles in fear of everything from global warming to immigrants, police violence, even our current Presidential candidates helped fuel Day Breaks, her sixth jazz-piano-based solo set for Blue Note, in smoky tracks like “Flipside,” “It’s a Wonderful Time for Love” and the casual stroll “Once I Had a Laugh.” The album features session heavyweights like drummer Brian Blade, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and organist Lonnie Smith, and is augmented by three quiescent covers: Horace Silver’s “Peace,” Duke Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine (African Flower),” Neil Young’s “Don’t Be Denied,” which she first heard when her country side group Puss n Boots was touring with Young last year. And ironically, this nine-time Grammy winner might have a concocted the perfect nerve-calming panacea for our troubled times.
Jones loves the idea that Day Breaks could comfort her fans this election year. “I know that for me, in times when there are mass shootings or crazy shit happening like 9/11, I always feel inadequate, whatever I do,” she admits. “I’m not a doctor or a nurse, I can’t help in that way. So sometimes it definitely fees like, ‘Am I even doing anything that matters?’ I just want to hang out with my family at times like that and, you know, be with people. But then again, I know that I always turn to music when I’m not feeling great and things are rough.”
It wasn’t as if this artist was particularly fond of airports to start with. As someone who treasures her carefully maintained privacy—she’s kept her spouse and kids out of the limelight, and she jokingly mentions “how they’re listed as ‘unnamed,’ like they don’t have names!”—she was horrified when LAX loosened its paparazzi privileges, resulting in zoom-lens photos of her holding her toddler son. “It’s so creepy,” she growls, protectively. “And somebody must tip them off, or they have access to the passenger manifesto, because they always know now when you’re there. It’s very unsettling when you land in L.A. after a long flight. It’s like, ‘Really?! You don’t care about me—why are you doing this?’” To flummox the shutterbugs, she and her husband now take separate cars to airports, then reunite after they’ve passed through security. “It’s just not worth the stress,” she says.
Invasive social media is another aspect of contemporary society that puzzles Jones, who was born Geetah Norah Shankar to late Indian sitar legend Ravi Shankar and American concert producer Sue Jones, whose surname she legally adopted at age 16. “It’s a creepy place to be—I don’t really do much of it,” she says of the Internet, in general. She tried Instagram for a bit, but soon got bored with it—she simply couldn’t come up with any relevant pictures to post. “And I also don’t want to get too personal, so it leaves me in a weird place, just flapping in the wind, plus I don’t really have the time,” she adds. She stays informed on world news—and the cavalcade of Tweeted absurdities from Donald Trump—but she shies away from aligning herself with any one politician. “I don’t trust any politician enough to take a stand,” she cedes. “So I think where I excel is in making music, and if I have a feeling, I’m going to express it that way. I’ve done that in the past, and I’ve done it on this record, because that’s who I am. I’m not somebody who Tweets my opinions on everything.” She chuckles, softly. “I mean, it’s not like that’s going to change anything, you know?”
However, Jones is grateful for one thing in particular: The fact that she became so incredibly popular early on—after moving from her native Grapevine, Texas to New York City—with her 2002 debut, Come Away With Me, which hit No. 1 on the charts, was certified platinum, then diamond in sales, and earned her five coveted Grammys a year later. Her smooth, soulful vocal style and deft way with a folk-blues melody was exactly the balm the world needed, post-9/11, and it afforded her a remarkably faithful audience that has followed her from project to project, including a veritable cornucopia of surprising collaborations with artists like Mike Patton, Ryan Adams, Foo Fighters, Keith Richards, Herbie Hancock, Seth MacFarlane, and recently, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong on Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, a remake of a classic Everly Brothers covers collection. To date, she’s sold over 50 million albums.
“I feel lucky,” says the singer. “I do feel like I can do what I want, and maybe not everybody will follow. But I’ve been lucky enough to have that kind of career, and the ability to just make music and try different things. Thanks to all that crazy success in the beginning.” Why the sudden left turn into traditional jazz? It wasn’t exactly instantaneous, she explains. The concept first came to her two years ago, when she appeared at the Kennedy Center’s “Blue Note at 75” tribute concert, and wound up hanging out with Smith, Shorter and McCoy Tyner. “I think that inspired me to play piano again, and write songs with Brian Blade and Wayne Shorter in mind. I had some sounds in my head, and I was really hoping to record with them. So that show definitely spurred it, for sure.”
The more Jones thought about it, the more appealing the idea became. A jazz recording would bring her career full circle, back to the cocktail-cabaret classics she first started out in Big Apple bars, pre-Come Away With Me. And it was a heady time, she rhapsodizes. Although she does remember one grueling five-and-a-half-hour gig she regularly played for the theater crowd at a Times Square pub. “A lot of cool piano players played it, and I felt lucky to get it, but it was so damned long and the crowd was definitely not very enthusiastic—they were more interested in getting drunk and talking really loud,” she laughs. “But I was lucky—I didn’t have too many horrible gigs, and if I did, they didn’t last long.”
At the time, though, Jones couldn’t say for sure which genre should be her focus. She was covering Frank Sinatra and jazz standards for that type of clientele, but playing originals in a folkier little combo with Jesse Harris, who was writing future hits for her to sing like her aughts breakthrough single, “Don’t Know Why.” When someone at Blue Note brought her to label honcho Bruce Lundvall’s attention, who heard a demo featuring two jazz standards and a Harris-penned track. “And Bruce was confused by that last song,” she recalls. “He was like, ‘Well, do you want to jazz or do you want to do this? And what is this?’ And I was like, ‘Well, uhh….jazz!’ But I didn’t know what I wanted to do—I hadn’t moved to New York to play jazz. But Bruce gave me some money to flesh out what I wanted to do and make some more recordings, which was the best thing he could’ve done. If he had just signed me on the spot to make a jazz record, that would have been the worst thing.”
Producer Jay Newland oversaw early demos that would become the performer’s tentative First Sessions release in 2001. But by Come Away, she’d found her definitive sultry sound, backed by her own group of musicians. An alternate version of those takes exists, she reveals, played by slick session vets. “So there was kind of a lost record in there,” she says. “And I thought I should explore putting it out at some point, but I listened to it a couple of years ago, and now I really don’t want it to ever come out. It’s got amazing musicians on it, and the playing is great. But I just don’t sound good.”
So, with a piano conveniently located in her kitchen, Jones set aside her oft-strummed guitar and concentrated on smoky, bare-bones melodies like “Burn,” “Tragedy” and “Carry On,” often in tandem with her co-writer Sarah Oda, who, for instance, lyrically finished her dark thoughts on “It’s a Wonderful Time for Love.”
“I needed help honing in on it, because I knew it wasn’t a love song,” she explains.” These songs came from a place of being moved by certain things, like watching the news, because you can be very moved by the world around you.” Like many composers who have seen Mike Judge’s eerily prescient film Idiocracy, she believes its ignorant-populace future is coming true, all too rapidly. “And it’s terrifying, it’s depressing,” she says. “Everything seems very….very charged right now. And it’s not just race relations in our country—it’s everywhere. Stuff is going on in Europe, all kinds of stuff that just makes you feel scared. And then it’s always in your face because you’re always online, or watching the news. We are all very, very aware of it.”
How does Jones account for an anomaly like Trump? “The system was flawed before he came along, and that’s what has enabled him to do this,” she reckons. “If things weren’t so messed up already, there wouldn’t be room for this kind of drama. And I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Honestly, I am so sick of it, and it’s ultimately terrifying. And yet, it’s also all that we can think about. 2016 is a weird place to be, that’s for sure.”
So she lost herself in the lounge-relaxed Day Breaks sessions, and reveled in working alongside legends like Shorter. “I was really nervous at first, but her was so nice,” she says of her ultra-cool collaborator. “He’s such an incredible musician, and he’s not playing a bunch of notes—he’s just playing a feeling. And if he’s not feeling it, he’ll wait to come in—he doesn’t even choose his moments, he just feels it, and it happens.
“And we were all in one room, and you can hear the room, I think, on the record,” she continues. “So I liked recording this album with a mostly-piano trio, with bass and drums, with almost no guitar. For me, that was a first. You wouldn’t think so, because people think of me and the piano as being intertwined. But this is the most stripped-down I’ve been with the piano, just playing chords, playing the shell of the song. It’s been nice.”
Ultimately, the final lingering question Jones is left with transcends any airport fiasco, either real or imagined. In these dire times, when humanity is literally grappling with its own accelerating extinction, is making music simply fiddling while Rome burns? “I hope it’s the exact opposite,” she concludes. “But I don’t know if I can say that. Or, I’m not sure that I should say that—I don’t want to take that stand. Because it’s different for everybody. For some people, they don’t listen to music, it’s not catharsis for them. “But thankfully, for people who do listen to music and love it and feel it, it is catharsis. So hopefully, for them it’s all worth it, you know?”