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Parting Shots: Norah Jones

Dean Budnick | September 28, 2016

On Norah Jones’ new album, Day Breaks, she revisits her formative years as a Texas high school and college jazz pianist. The album originated with her participation in The Kennedy Center’s Blue Note at 75 concert in 2014 and features Dr. Lonnie Smith, whom she met that night, as well as three musicians she performed with at the event: Wayne Shorter, John Patitucci and Brian Blade. (Blade also played drums on Jones’ career-making 2002 debut, Come Away With Me.) “After that night, I thought it’d be fun to make a real jazz record,” she explains. “I’ve never really done that. I didn’t just want to make a standards record, though, so I started writing songs for this record here and there. It became less of a jazz record than I had intended, but I feel like it all fits together really well.”

What was your initial takeaway from the Kennedy Center event?

It was just an awesome night. I realized how much I love playing with Brian Blade and how much I worship Wayne Shorter. It was fun and there was a sense of community, too—seeing all of these people who I really hadn’t seen in a long time. I’m not really on the jazz scene anymore. I went to jazz camp in high school with Robert Glasper, so hanging with him was nice. It was like old times—Jason Moran is from Houston. It felt like a little bit of a homecoming—just hanging with all those people. We all love Bruce Lundvall, he really was the label for the last 25 years. [Lundvall, the longtime Blue Note president, died in 2015.]

Who were your inspirations on piano back in your jazzcamp days?

Growing up, it was definitely a lot of jazz piano players like Bill Evans, but I’ve also been listening to Ray Charles on the record player since I was a little kid. Aretha Franklin’s piano playing was always pretty inspirational. Also Nina Simone—I’m not even talking about them because they’re singer-pianists. I’m talking about their actual piano playing. I also grew up listening to Red Headed Stranger [Willie Nelson’s 1975 album] with Bobbie Nelson on the piano—that inspired me, too. A combination of all those, plus a ton of great jazz pianists: Bill Evans, Herbie [Hancock], Wynton Kelly.

Did you make a conscious decision to veer off in a slightly different musical direction?

It kind of just happened. I moved to New York [in 1999] to play jazz. I was playing all these jazz standards in college and high school. When I moved to New York, I got into this songwriting scene. I had these friends—Jesse Harris, Richie Julian—and they were writing songs, and I started writing my own songs more on guitar because I didn’t have a piano yet. It just opened me up to that world, which opened me up to not staying within a genre. A good song is a good song; it doesn’t matter what genre it is. It only matters if you connect with it and can deliver it in a way that is meaningful.

In the context of this record, you’ve mentioned Shirley Horn and Blossom Dearie.

The first time I heard Shirley Horn was in college and somebody gave me that album You Won’t Forget Me, which came out in the ‘90s. Then, I got into her older stuffž, like Travelin’ Light. I love that album—great pianist, great singer. She had a real way of just playing as slow as she could, and her band always followed her. It was just heart-stopping. Sometimes, when you get the right chemistry with a slow, slow song, it’s amazing.

Blossom Dearie is another great singer-pianist who had a way with a slow song. She had a lot of cutesy songs—she’s got that cutesy voice—and she had a lot of cuter songs that were faster. But my favorite stuž by Blossom Dearie was the slow stužff, like “Tea for Two”—it’s the most beautiful, slow version. Or “I’ll Take Manhattan”—that’s the stužff that inspired me.

Dr. Lonnie Smith adds Hammond B-3 to Day Breaks, and you play it a bit as well.

He cracks me up; he’s the funniest human. He sounded so great that night and we had such fun talking backstage that I thought I’d ask him to play on it. He just put out a new album and sat in with The Roots on Fallon. It was cool to see him out there. It’s been awesome hearing organ players like him.

The organ has been sounding so good to me lately—what an interesting instrument and it’s got such a vibe. As a piano player, though, it’s kind of a beast. I had my organ player show me some stuffž with the drawbars, and he told me: “It’s really not that hard, you just have to experiment a little bit.” I’m not great at it, but it’s pretty fun.

This was your second time recording with Wayne Shorter.

I sang with him for the first time 10 years ago on a Herbie Hancock record [River: The Joni Letters]. It was Herbie and Wayne and David Holland. I thought, “Oh, crap, I’m playing with these guys who I’ve listened to for so long—these guys who are such heavy musicians!” I was singing a song by Joni Mitchell [“Court and Spark”], who also is one of the most complex songwriters. I was terrified of how it was going to work—“Am I going to be able to hang with these guys?” We recorded it all live and it was super fun, and I think it came out great.

I felt the same way when Wayne came in the studio, although I’m more confident now. I played piano—I thought I should since it’s my record. I really enjoy it. So I basically hired his quartet without Danilo Pérez, who is an amazing piano player. We were playing mostly ballads, so I had time to find my way. It was a little nerve-wracking at first, but it worked out. He’s such a generous musician and a kind, fun person to be with in the studio.

How has the New York that you first encountered in 1999 changed over the years?

It’s changed a lot, for sure. Everybody’s moved to Brooklyn, and Brooklyn is now too expensive for any artist to live in. But my life has changed, too. I have two kids; I don’t go out every night, which is what I did when I was in my twenties. I went out to hear music every night or I went out to eat or went to do something fun or cool. Even though I don’t do that, I think that stuffž still goes on. It’s just that the neighborhoods where it goes on have moved.