It’s taken some 14 years, but Norah Jones has finally come to terms with her musical legacy.
Not the one her estranged, famous late father left her, or the other platinum-selling genre dalliances her whims guided her through — but her own. You know the one: the innocuous, soy-latte of jazz music; that light touch piano and honeyed voice combo, which sounds as comfortable humming from the speakers of a restored Detroit-made automobile as it does your aunt’s dinner party.
It’s no coincidence, then, that practically from the moment her 2002 debut, Come Away With Me, and its ubiquitous single “Don’t Know Why” earned her more Grammys than her arms could bear (eight, including album of the year), Jones has used its success as a shield to pretty much do whatever she wants.
The intervening years have been a study in being true to oneself while avoiding the self that provided that type of freedom: Jones wrote country albums, dealt with heartache, appeared opposite Natalie Portman in a Wong Kar-Wai film and even made an Everly Brothers tribute album with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong. Anything but breezy, sedative pop jazz that’s synonymous with her brand.
But now, with the wisdom of her fourth decade, Jones is finally ready to give the people — and maybe even more so herself — what they want. On Day Breaks, the chanteuse teams up with a who’s who of Blue Note greats, including Wayne Shorter and Dr. Lonnie Smith, for a true-to-life jazz record that bops and chomps in all the right places, while providing an agreeable home for the timeless earworms Jones is known for.
On a recent August afternoon, Jones was in Toronto to perform a low-key industry showcase in front of select media and bookers. Hours before she was set to take the stage, the singer-songwriter sat comfortably in her hotel room, brushing off the last nearly decade-and-a-half of career choices.
“A little bit was me being kinda like, 'Hey, I'm interested in other stuff too,'” she offered with a reassuring smile. “I'm a lot more comfortable not trying to fight anything anymore. It felt like a good time to just play piano.”
At 37, the recent mother of two is over it. Over society’s opinions of her. Over the media’s constant intrusions into her private life. Over everyone’s concept of her music. She’s not even angry, she says, she just simply doesn’t care to care.
“I'm just not that calculated,” she said, eyes darting to the ground. “People always ask me certain types of questions and I'm like, that's a great question but I'm never thinking about that unless I'm being asked that question.”
In that way, she argues, Day Breaks is simultaneously a “kindred spirit” to Come Away With Me while also just being true to what she was listening to at the time. It’s why, for example, the album includes a cover of Neil Young’s “Don’t Be Denied”: because “I had a very Neil year last year.”
Likewise, Jones says she intuited jazz was making a comeback. Day Breaks began forming in her mind shortly after she performed at a Blue Note 75th anniversary show, and its live-off-the-floor recording style infuses the album’s more spirited numbers, such as opener "Burn," with the improvisational flare that’s caught the zeitgeist recently thanks to releases from the likes of Kamasi Washington, David Bowie and Kendrick Lamar.
“It seems like jazz is having a resurgence kind of in the way it did in the '90s, which is when I was in high school and really into it. It's exciting.” she says, citing Lamar specifically as the one artist that’s given her hope for the genre. “I've never seen someone so amazing at what they do,” she gushes. “Every time I see him it's like oh my God, it gives me chills.”
“How do you get the feeling of listening to Kind of Blue when you were 11 years old? How do you get that feeling back? That's how Kendrick Lamar makes me feel,” she explains. “When you see him perform it's like your heart stops a little bit. His performances, the stuff he says and the way he says it and the intensity with which he performs it just makes it so right. At this moment, it's just very important.”
Asked if she embedded some of that revolutionary spirit into some of the songs on Day Breaks, Jones hesitates.
“Sometimes I'll read people's opinions and I'll go, y'know, you just want to hear yourself talk,'” she says. “For me, I think I should stick to what I do best, which is make music. I think it's made its way into several songs and I'm really proud of those songs and that's how I can do my part. I'm not going to be writing essays on it.”
It’s a perfect answer for the modern Norah Jones: no longer avoiding her fate, just being smarter about it.