In the annals of American Jazz one label stands apart from the rest: Blue Note. It was initially founded in 1939 by German ex-pat Alfred Lion and a communist writer named Max Marguilis. Lions and Marguilis were soon joined by photographer Francis Wolf, and the three of them made history together by forming an independent label that quickly garnered a reputation for both giving artists the chance to innovate, and treating them with respect while they were doing it. The rich, deep legacy of the Blue Note A&R direction has left us with gems from masters like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Grant Green, Cassandra Wilson, Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Smith, John Coltrane, Donald Byrd, Eric Dolphy, Horace Silver and on, and on, and…..
Historically, Jazz has been a difficult business to flourish in. Many times, having the opportunity to perform it, or work in it was the only reward that the most committed received. Blue Note had been a place where purists found strength in numbers, and huddled together for needed solace and inspiration to ward off the indifference of a sometimes unwelcoming world. All of that going against the grain can be challenging, but sometimes you get the reward of being right.
At the dawn of the new millenium Brian Bacchus, a young A&R exec who had the three essential qualities of the Jazz man, intellect, soulfulness and an ability to improvise, heard a three song demo by a young female singer/songwriter/pianist that showed promise. The young artist was barely out of her teens, and newly arrived in New York from Texas. She had an estranged father who had shown the Beatles the mystery of the sitar, and she had a low, husky, sexy voice that made you want to listen, but more importantly buy her recordings. The young Texan’s name was Norah Jones, and she not only became the biggets selling artist in the history of Blue Note Records, but the biggest selling artist of this decade. Brian has written a fascinating first person account that details the meeting, signing and recording of the mega star. Enjoy!
HERBIE HANCOCK & WAYNE SHORTER
With the Christmas season upon us, there has been a lot of buzz over several much-anticipated recordings by established artists – Maxwell, Sade and Norah Jones. Norah, of course will always have a special place in my heart because of my pivotal role in launching her career. Over the years I’ve been asked many times about her discovery and signing and I really didn’t think there was anything more interesting to add, but the recent clearing of an old storage space that held tons of cassettes, CDs and DATs made me re-visit my first experiences with Ms Jones with fresh eyes and ears. Sometimes a little time is needed to gain a richer perspective on your experience and sometimes a little nudging from another respected A&R man (the insideplaya) will get you to take another peek and remember some new facets of an artist – that you may have overlooked. That and a dope new album by Norah, “Fall”, gave me a reason to relive some of those beautiful early career moments as well as to measure her growth as a singer, pianist, guitarist, songwriter and even as an actress.
Sometime back in early 2000, Shell White, who worked in royalties at EMI, came to see me with an artist that she had started to manage in her spare time. I had been at Blue Note Records, and doing A&R for a few years by then. At Blue Note we had unusually frequent communication with the royalties department because of the vast Blue Note catalog, and because there were always scenarios where we might have to track down older royalty artists that had changed their address too many times for anyone in royalties to know where to send their check or if they were even alive. Anyway, Shell came in with Norah and met with Bruce Lundvall, my boss and the man responsible for resurrecting/re-activating the label back in the 80’s. He called me in and asked me if I would meet with them, take them to my office, and listen to the CD they brought.
I sat them both down and quickly got the lowdown on how Norah had recently come to town from Texas, and how Shell had heard her singing background vocals on a project that her husband JC Hopkins was producing with Victoria Williams on Atlantic Records. I listened to the three tracks on the CD. There were two jazz standards and one standout original by songwriter Jesse Harris. The standard that stood out was “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” which is a tough tune to sing especially for a young singer. Norah nailed it vocally even though the accompaniment wasn’t anything outstanding. Norah was on piano with a young bassist and drummer. Later, I would find out that Jesse was recording his publishing demos for Sony/ATV Music Publishing with Norah doing all the vocals – smart move!
After my meeting with Norah and Shell, I went over to Bruce and told him that I wanted to sign her. Her voice was all that and she was a special jazz vocalist, but we really needed to see her live. Bruce listened to the 3 tracks and concurred.
The first time I saw Norah live was at a little downtown club called Deanna’s. She primarily sang and played all jazz standards with an upright bassist and drummer. The band was not too tight, but her singing was great and she accompanied herself well. After that, I went out to see her every chance I got. Norah was also singing and playing in a host of other bands so I went out to see all of them too. Most importantly, in terms of her development, she had started singing in songwriter Jesse Harris’ band and handling not only the piano chair, but doing all the lead vocals.
The Living Room (then on the corner of Allen and Stanton in the Lower East Side, and now around the corner on Ludlow) was a favorite spot for Jesse’s group with Norah as well as many other up and coming singer songwriters. The camaraderie among songwriters there as well as the appearance by songwriters like Richard Julian, Jim Boggia, Sasha Dobson and Rebecca Martin certainly influenced Norah on the songwriting tip too.
Norah had also started singing and playing with the Waxpoetic a band that recorded for Atlantic Records. Waxpoetic was the brainchild of Turkish saxophonist/keyboardist, Ilhan Ersahin. Ilhan now owns and runs a great Lower East Side club, Nublu, that has become an incubation spot for some pretty hip bands (Brazilian Girls, Forro In The Dark, Clark Gayton’s Explorations in Dub, Love Trio, etc.) as well as being a hip young label – melding progressive jazz initiatives with electronica and other music.
As Ahmet Ertegun (the founder and head of Atlantic Records) and Ilhan Ersahin were both Turkish and affiliated with Atlantic, it wouldn’t be strange to see Ahmet at Waxpoetic’s gigs that Norah was on. I knew this was trouble and sure enough I got word from Shell White that Atlantic was also knocking on Norah’s door.
ATLANTIC RECORDS FOUNDER AHMET ERTEGUN
I immediately went to Bruce Lundvall to let him know. I suggested that we sign Norah to a demo deal with us ASAP. This was for two reasons. One, Norah had minimal studio experience, and I felt she needed to get comfortable in the studio as well as better flesh out the skeletons of the performances and recordings that I had heard thus far. Two, a demo deal with Blue Note would at least keep Atlantic at bay for a moment and we would secure the right to match whatever they might offer once the term of our demo deal was up.
My relationship with Norah and Shell White was solid by then, and we spoke almost daily. I had been out to see Norah at almost every gig with either her group, Jesse Harris’ group or Waxpoetic since we first got together. I think this and the fact we had the inimitable Bruce Lundvall, whose track record and old school charm mirrored Ahmet’s, tilted the decision in our favor so Norah agreed to sign with us.
Norah, Shell and I quickly got to organizing her first real demo sessions to get something down on tape. I suggested engineer Jay Newland, whom I had worked with in the past on a myriad of projects. Jay was low-key and a great engineer, both musically and technically. He also had an ear and extensive experience in Jazz, Country, and Blues projects so I knew he would ‘get’ where Norah was coming from, as well as keep her first sessions calm and drama free. They met and Norah loved him.
Next I called Vera Beren at Sorceror Sound to schedule two days. Sorceror was a reasonably priced studio downtown on Mercer Street with great gear and no major frills, so it was a great place to focus and just do music. Jay liked working there too, so I knew it would be a great introductory studio experience for Norah. Little did I know how good it would be!
Meanwhile Norah had been putting the nucleus of a band together as well as writing her own music. Her boyfriend and the bassist in her band, Lee Alexander, would also turn out to be a pretty special songwriter in his own right (“Lonestar,” ” Feeling the Same Way,” ” The Painter Song,” “Seven Years”). Lee and I had first met through a mutual friend and musician, guitarist, engineer Liberty Ellman, who happened to be biding his time getting record biz experience while re-launching his career and label on the East coast. I believe he and Lee knew each other from the Bay Area. Lee sometimes subbed in Liberty’s jazz trio, which had a crazy regular gig at The Rouge, an intimate chill bar owned by actor/director Michael Imperioli in Chelsea. Norah’s gigs with Jesse Harris were also starting to create a little buzz and becoming more co-lead affairs, as she became the focus. She was also starting to debut her own material. Drummer Dan Reiser had been playing in Jesse Harris’ band and was also now on Norah’s gigs. With the addition of guitarists Adam Rogers and Tony Scherr, as well as Jesse himself on guitar, we had the nucleus of the first demo sessions and actually a good part of her debut record, “Come Away With Me”.
THE BREAKTHROUGH DEBUT
The demo sessions went extremely well and there was a great vibe in the studio. Also on hand was Anoushka Shankar, Norah’s half sister via the great Ravi Shankar, her father. Strangely enough, she had been signed to Angel, the classical sister label to EMI’s Blue Note by my A&R counterpart, Steve Ferrera, without us knowing the connection. Steve, a talented A&R, drummer, songwriter and producer, is now at J Records acting as Clive Davis’ right hand man (Kelly Clarkson, Heather Headley, Chrisette Michele). Anoushka had just been in town touring with her father and brought their tabla player with her to play on a Jesse Harris tune, “Something Is Calling You.” On the 6-track EP “First Sessions,” that was given a limited pressing so that Norah would have something to sell at gigs in the interim before the first CD dropped, the tabla is taken off. Norah felt it was incongruous with the sound of the other 5 tracks, but I always really loved the sound of the tabla on that track. In the two days at Sorceror Sound, Norah recorded and rough mixed 12 tracks! Nine of those tracks were really strong and are still circulating in a few hands. When I finally listened to the mixes I knew we had something special, but I had no idea that this would become the nucleus of what would eventually become one of the biggest selling records in the history of the record business.
to be continued…..