Because it was issued by Blue Note, the legendary jazz label, some jazz purists sputtered when they heard “Come Away With Me,” Norah Jones’s 2002 debut album, a mellow mélange that dipped into pop, country and folk for its sound. Great American songbook standards by Hoagy Carmichael, John D. Loudermilk and Hank Williams were presented by well-crafted originals by Jesse Harris and Lee Alexander, who were members of Jones’s band, and by Jones herself. Other contributors included guitarists Kevin Breit, Bill Frisell, Adam Levy – another frequent Jones colleague – and Tony Scherr, violinist Jenny Scheinman and drummer Brian Blade. Jones’s performance on piano was essential to the album’s distinctive sound; as much as her voice, if not more so, it reveals how she blended her influences.
Jones appeared to arrive on the pop-music scene as if by magic, but she worked her way to a position to achieve. The daughter of Sue Jones, a New York-based concert promoter, and sitarist-composer Ravi Shankar, Jones was raised in Texas where she attended a performing-arts high school in Dallas. She won Downbeat’s Student Music award as a jazz vocalist and composer, and majored in jazz piano in college. In ’99, she moved to New York and formed a band with Harris. Blue Note executives signed her after hearing a three-track demo. As she working with producer Jay Newland to discover the best way to present her talents, she sang on albums by Charlie Hunter, Peter Malick and Wax Poetic.
“Come Away With Me” was not an immediate hit. It launched way down on the Billboard 200 album charts. But it caught on very quickly, selling its one-millionth copy six months after its release. Its appeal was found in its easygoing manner, which disguises its ingenuity. “Come Away With Me” was a very clever album whose great asset was subtlety, as evidenced immediately on the opening number, Harris’s “Don’t Know Why,” which featured blue tones applied with gentle care: Jones, whose piano solo was based in country music, appeared to be singing atop a cloud. The title track, written by Jones, was a country waltz that unfolded under the subtle cymbal work by drummer Joseph Quevedo and the upright bass played by Alexander; Levy added a twangy guitar solo. “I’ve Got To See You” was built on Jones’s piano and Blade’s percussion – he seemed to be playing the drums with his hands rather than sticks. Scheinman’s whispery gypsy violin added a needed dab of color.
Jones and the musicians took a distinctive approach to the classics. The arrangement for Loudermilk’s “Turn Me On,” recorded earlier by Nina Simone, among others, recalls both a late ‘50s country blues and folky R&B. On “The Nearness of You,” Jones presents her jazz bonafides by performing it accompanied only by her piano. “Cold Cold Heart” kicked off with a snappy bass line that danced with Jones as she sang Williams’s memorable melody. Her voicing of chords on piano gave the tune a mysterious feel, returning it to country only now and then.
The jazz purists' protests had little effect: “Come Away With Me” won eight Grammys and sold more than 25 million copies worldwide. (So much for purists.) “Come Away With Me” skyrocketed Jones to international fame, but she’s veered away from the template at times. While “Feels Like Home” and “Not Too Late,” released in 2004 and 2007, respectively, adhere to the mellow pop-jazz-country model, for ‘09’s “The Fall” she brought in producer Jacquire King, altered her backing musicians and put the electric guitar at the center of many arrangements. With Alexander, guitarist Jim Campilongo, Richard Julian and others, she formed the Little Willies, an alt-country group. Well off the radar was her punk band, El Madmo, Danger Mouse produced her fifth album, “Little Broken Hearts,” which placed her in a variety of new environments, all of which she managed with grace and ease. A serial collaborator, Jones and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong recorded “Foreverly,” a tribute to the Everly Brothers album “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us.” “She has a soft voice that carries a melody in a powerful way,” Armstrong told me. He was exactly right.
With “Come Away With Me,” Jones waved off the naysayers and created a gem. It’s an album that’s lost none of its delicate authority and abundant charm.