Brian Bacchus, Blue Note’s A & R man said this about Norah Jones’s debut album, “We let her find her own direction…. We knew that if she could develop her song writing and we could find great songs, it would work.” And what a direction it was…and is.
It was three years into the Blue Note’s seventh decade as a record label, when Norah Jones came along, taking label boss, Bruce Lundvell and the other Blue Note executives completely by surprise. Norah is the daughter of sitar player Ravi Shankar and to some people her album is was anything but, yet according to Michael Cuscuna, Blue note’s noted producer: ‘I was absolutely thrilled when Bruce signed Norah Jones. She was a jazz artist, playing piano and singing standards with an acoustic bass and a jazz drummer. When her demos started to show more pop and country directions, Bruce, with his whole concern about the integrity of Blue Note, offered to sign her to the Manhattan label, which was more pop-oriented. But Norah said, “No. I want to be on Blue Note. That’s who I signed with. I love that label. I grew up with that, and that’s where I want to be”’.
The end result was staggering. No album in the history of Blue Note has been so successful or sold as many copies. Cuscuna recalls, ‘We would’ve been thrilled if it had done 200,000 copies, but it ended up selling 10 million copies on its own steam. It was very bizarre, one of those really bizarre things to watch happen’. The 10 million was just in the US and in the first flush of its release; worldwide it has sold upwards of 25 million copies and is considered a modern-day ‘standard’ akin to Carole King’s Tapestry in the early 1970s. No other Blue Note release has sold more.
Fact is there have also been fewer more successful debut solo albums than what Norah Jones achieved when she topped the Billboard charts in late January 2003. The following year Come Away With Me went on to secure 8 Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, and in the intervening year it received critical acclaim from just about every quarter. However, there are some who claim it is “not really a jazz record”, they are right, but who cares.
One critic claimed it was the “Most unjazz album Blue Note had ever released.” And to that point in time he was right. But does that matter? Like Ray Charles said, “There’s only two types of music…good and bad.” The same critic who thought it ‘unjazz’ complained that “Jones’s voice dominates the record” – that surely is the point? She has a beautiful, mellifluous voice and it draws you in from the very first words she sings, “Don’t know why…”. Why cannot people just appreciate it for what it is – a beautifully crafted record, expertly recorded and played.
The intimacy of the fourteen songs is what makes this so special. It’s like eves-dropping on someone’s private thoughts and it has a maturity which belies Jones’s age – she was 22 years old when she made it. Aside from the opening track, which also made the Billboard Top 30, her cover of Hank Williams’s ‘Cold Cold Heart and ‘the delicate ‘Come Away With Me’ are the standout cuts. Don’t listen the naysayers, listen to this record.
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