When last we met, our hero (along with Bruce Lundvall) had successfully wooed Norah Jones, and convinced her that the landmark Jazz diskery, Blue Note Records was just the place for her to launch what would prove to be one of the most storied recording careers of the past quarter century. We pick up the thread of the tale, and find Mr. Bacchus assisting young Ms. Jones in the selection of materiel for her first project, and after a misstep in choosing a producer, he gets serious and brings in a legend. The result was the smash debut “Come Away With Me.”
When I got back to the office on Monday, I was really excited to play everything for Bruce because I knew he would dig it. Of the 9 tracks, there were 4 covers in the jazz, country and blues canon; I Didn’t Know About You (Duke Ellington), Turn Me On (John D. Loudermilk), Hallelujah, I Love Him [Her] So (Ray Charles) and Peace (Horace Silver). The rest were all originals; Come Away With Me by Norah, Lonestar by Lee Alexander and Don’t Know Why, Something Is Calling You and The Only Time, all by Jesse Harris. Bruce definitely got it, but I know he would have liked some more jazz standards. I think folks there (except publicist JR Rich who championed and loved it from note one) felt the same. A comment I remember hearing several times was, “ This is great, but what are we (Blue Note Records) going to do with it?” It was certainly unlike anything else we had on the label. Eventually everyone came around, including Capitol Records President Roy Lott, because it was just that good and because of the unassuming and down-to-earth charm of Norah herself.
Of the 9 keeper tracks, I brainstormed with Shell White to press up an EP of 6 tracks to give to Norah to sell at gigs while we got about planning her first record. That EP was First Sessions and would prove pivotal in spreading the word via some of the special radio stations out there like KCRW on the west coast and WFUV & WFMU on the east. They and a select group of alternative triple A-like and public radio stations would be early champions of this new singer with the jazzy/bluesy country vibe and start a slow simmer while we regrouped and thought out the next steps.
The first discussion was about finding a producer. Norah really wanted to do it herself, but as a young artist on her first recording Shell, Bruce and I felt that she really needed to have someone there to guide things along at the very least. Her first choice was Craig Street, as she loved his work with Cassandra Wilson. Craig is a friend and a great producer and also had a producer deal with Blue Note that involved producing a certain number of projects as part of his deal. He and Norah hit it off and went about planning the sessions. Craig decided to go up to Allaire, a beautiful studio that sits atop the mount above the Shokan Reservoir near Woodstock. Norah wanted to bring Jay Newland back on board, but Craig pressed to use his own engineer, S. Husky Höskulds (Mitchell Froom, Tchad Blake, Sheryl Crow, Tom Waits, Ani DiFrano, Los Lobos). The core of the band became the brilliant drummer Brian Blade, bassist/songwriter/producer Lee Alexander and phenomenal Canadian guitarist Kevin Breit.
Guitar hero Bill Frisell also came up to add some magic with Norah on vocals, piano and Wurlitzer. Tracking went smoothly with no serious time constraints in the most beautiful setting. I had to come back just before mixing started but checked in daily to make sure everything was kosher. When Craig delivered the mixes though, everyone was surprised. Perhaps because everyone was used to listening to our first demos, which were simple and clean vocally, they weren’t prepared for Craig’s (and Norah’s as she was there for the mix) vision that was certainly a departure. We were yet to do a listen down with Norah so I told Bruce to wait to give her our opinions when she came in and we could hear from her first hand where she was coming from and also to let her have time to absorb the mixes herself. A few days later she called me with trepidation in her voice and told me she didn’t like the mixes at all now and didn’t even want to go in and remix again. Of course she felt bad because of the money that was wasted, but anyone who has spent time in major label A&R departments, knows this is part of the territory. I felt bad for Craig as he was her choice and his specialty is guiding artists into uncharted territory to deliver unique masterpieces; Cassandra Wilson, Meshell N’Degeocello, Chris Whitley, Joe Henry and k.d. lang have all benefited from his touch. I was still hoping that some of the tracks could be salvaged, but knew that she had churned out 9 winners in two days before, so was capable of still making this a reasonably priced first recording.
Around the same time Arif Mardin and Ian Ralfini, who had offices over at Atlantic Records, were looking for office space and had approached Bruce Lundvall about possibly renting two offices down at our 304 Park Avenue address. Ever the tactician, Lundvall turned it around and convinced them into running a re-activated Manhattan label, something that Bruce had always wanted to revive. Now that we were looking for a producer again for Norah, Bruce wisely suggested Arif Mardin. I thought the idea was genius. Arif had worked with the cream of the crop of singers and in particular, singers that were also pianists. Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack immediately come to mind.
The problem was convincing Norah, who now really wanted to go it alone after the first misfire. Shell White, her manager, liked the idea but knew we had some convincing to do. It fell on me to bring her around. Norah had two opposing feelings about it; one was trepidation at working with someone as esteemed and part of recording history as Arif and the other was whether they might be in the same place aesthetically because of her youth and his age. I convinced Norah to attend a showcase-like session at SIR rehearsal studios with just her, Arif and myself. She would play some tunes and sing and they would talk. I would just be a fly on the wall and hope for the best. They had a good time just talking about and playing music. Arif put her at ease and the fences eventually came down.
THE QUEEN OF SOUL
Now, to get back into the studio. Norah was adamant about having Jay Newland back as engineer and also going back to where the original magic first happened, Sorceror Sound. She also wanted to keep some of the original basic tracks from those sessions, most importantly Come Away With Me (which would become the title track) and Don’t Know Why (which went on to garner 3 Grammy Awards – Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance!). Lonestar and Turn Me On would also be in the mix. Hank Williams’ Cold Cold Heart and Hoagy Carmichael’s The Nearness of You (with Turn Me On) would satisfy Bruce’s desire for some standards, but the rest would be all originals by Norah, Jesse Harris, Lee Alexander and JC Hopkins. The basic tracks of two songs from the Craig Street sessions were indeed salvaged but Arif didn’t want to confuse the issue, as he wasn’t involved in the original tracking direction, so Jay Newland and Norah produced and remixed them. The rest of the record was cut fresh with some of the same folks and a few new people. Jay Newland and Arif Mardin did their magic in the mix and I learned some valuable producer lessons watching Arif track, comp and mix Norah’s vocals.
While the record was being mixed in the summer of 2001, the recording industry was taking a nosedive. I received and delivered the final masters that September on the heels of 9-11, which felt like the final nail in the coffin. Indeed, a few weeks later, I was let go from Blue Note and got busy getting SoulFeast Music off the ground. Come Away with Me was released in February of 2002 and slowly gained momentum. At first no radio formats outside of AAA and the original core radio base I mentioned before, wanted to play it. A low budget video was also done and MTV initially refused to play that as well. But the groundswell, word of mouth and listener cumes (cumulative audience) on the stations that played it turned everyone around and stations in every format would end up finding a place for it. MTV even called back to get a copy. I knew it was breaking new ground when both CD 101.9 and Z100 here in NYC were both playing it. I received my Gold record in May of that year and by June the record had gone platinum. When the Grammy Awards came around the following February of 2002, Norah and Come Away With Me went on to snag 8 Grammies, a record for a female artist. At the Grammy party Norah, Lee Alexander, Jesse Harris and Jay Newland were still pinching themselves, but this was familiar ground for Arif. When he saw me he shook my hand and said the nicest thing, “This is yours too – I just added a little something here and there.” A little something indeed!
3 recordings (not counting The Little Willies and El Madmo), 4 movie appearances, 9 Grammies and with over 36 million records sold, Norah is back with The Fall. If you haven’t heard it yet, I recommend you pick it up even if you weren’t a fan. Not only has she grown as a writer, singer and musician, she has given us something completely different without losing her core essence – a trick not easily attained by most artists. Her usual cohorts from the Handsome Band are gone and she’s enlisted Jacquire King whose musical breadth is just what the doctor ordered. Norah first heard his engineering work on a favorite album of hers, Tom Wait’s Mule Variations. His work can be heard on records by artists as different as Kings of Leon, No Doubt, Buddy Guy, Guster, Modest Mouse and Third Eye Blind. The cast of musicians on this particular trip is a cross between rock, soul and country with a little fairy dust sprinkled in. To get what I’m talking about imagine including drummers Joey Waronker (Beck, R.E.M.), and James Gadson (Bill Withers), keyboardist James Poyser (Erykah Badu, Al Green, The Roots), and guitarists Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Los Cubanos Postizos) and Smokey Hormel (Johnny Cash, Joe Strummer). In addition to acoustic and electric instruments, there is the judicious use of synthesizer and programming, something not heard before on any of her previous albums. Downtown songwriters Sasha Dobson and Robert DiPietro are on board not as writers here, but as backing musicians (acoustic guitar and drums respectively). Frequent songwriting collaborators Jesse Harris and Richard Julian also show up in their more traditional roles, but some new songwriting collaborators also emerge – Ryan Adams (Light As A Feather), Make Martin (Young Blood) and Will Scheff (Stuck). The rest of the 8 tracks are entirely composed by Norah from the vantage point of her guitar. She is also playing more guitar here, both acoustic and electric, which adds a different rhythmic edge as well as sonic underpinning. Lyrically she has also grown considerably; consider she was just 20 when she first recorded the First Sessions EP. Almost a decade later she is a completely mature woman that has seen and experienced not just the world, but gained some perspective on the ups and downs of her own personal life. It shows not only in the music and her ability to swim in uncharted waters, but in her sense of grounding that lets you know that this is the same young woman that sang Come Away With Me a mere 10 years ago… just all grown up!