”Put on ‘Orbits’!” says Norah Jones. ”I love ‘Orbits’!”
Her boyfriend and bassist, Lee Alexander, drops a 1966 Miles Davis album, Miles Smiles, into the CD player. ”Orbits” is the first song. The melody is bitter and serpentine — compared with most of the cretin pop on the radio, it comes off like quantum physics — but Jones hums happily along. ”God,” she says, ”I haven’t listened to this record in forever.” Next, they switch to ”Witch Hunt,” from Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil. It was cut on Christmas Eve, 1964, and it came out on Blue Note — the same jazz-utopia label that Jones is signed to. ”There’s no way to be as cool as Wayne Shorter,” she says. ”Who is that cool?”
This woman was born in…1979. Speak with the singer and pianist, and she’ll make loving nods to Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Willie Nelson but never utter the name Carson Daly. Her new debut album, Come Away With Me, radiates a spate of musical styles whose commercial potency passed decades ago: West Coast jazz, Muscle Shoals soul, Austin twang, and smoke-ringed Gotham balladry. Precociously rich and seductive, her voice seems to well up from the age of Dinah Washington and Nina Simone.
Alert the men in black: We think Norah Jones is an alien pretending to be a 22-year-old. When she was studying jazz at the University of North Texas, her band was called Laszlo — after the character in Casablanca. Despite a generation’s fetish for midriff baring, she’s chaste about what she wears. ”I don’t want to show my belly. I’m not quite comfortable with that,” she says. ”I want to be sexy. I don’t want to be slutty. I don’t want people to want me. I want to just look nice.” Here in her Brooklyn apartment there’s a rented Yamaha piano and a stand-up bass, but Jones and Alexander tend not to woodshed after 9 p.m., so the neighbors can’t really complain. ”Actually, they annoy us,” Jones laughs. ”It’s weird. I’m such an old lady in a 22-year-old body. I get so annoyed at, like, house music. That’s fine for a club, but God, don’t play it in the apartment!” The ”devil in Miss Jones” puns will have to wait. The only sign of vice sits on the kitchen counter, near the Cheerios: a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape sent over by Blue Note chief Bruce Lundvall.
Lundvall signed Jones the moment he heard her. One day Shell White, an employee in the company’s accounting department, brought along Jones and a demo. ”I stopped in my tracks,” Lundvall says. ”I said, ‘You’re on Blue Note Records. I’m signing you now.”’ Only later did he find out that her rich musical parentage was more than theoretical: Although she grew up in Texas with her mother, Sue, an Oklahoma-bred nurse, her father is Ravi Shankar, India’s titan of the sitar.
The Shankar connection is left out of her press kit. ”It’s not a secret,” says Jones, whose parents, now estranged, met at a Dallas concert and never married. ”But I didn’t grow up with my dad, and I’ve only had a relationship with him the past four years. I love my dad and we’re as close as we can be, but it’s not something that contributed to my musical upbringing.” Come Away springs from river-deep American roots; its producer, Arif Mardin, guided Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield to their mountain highs. In the studio Jones insisted on a spare, organic sound. ”People are bored with formula records,” Mardin says. ”There’s a certain age group that would like to get their hands on records that feel natural, and I think she may be the advance guard of this movement.” Could be. Already she’s shot a video and played on The Tonight Show. ”It’s hard to explain, because this album flies in the face of a lot of contemporary music,” Lundvall says. ”We had to re-configure everything. I’ve told our people: ‘Look, you have to think that we’re a pop label, now, for this artist.”’