Photo: Vivian Wang
Norah Jones On Her Two-Decade Evolution, Channeling Chris Cornell & Her First-Ever Live Album, ''Til We Meet Again'
Just over a week after Chris Cornell wailed Led Zeppelin's "In My Time of Dying" at Detroit's Fox Theater mere hours before taking his life, Norah Jones stepped onto that same stage. Near the end of the set, her band took five, and she sang Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" onstage for the first time—and maybe the last.
Jones had spent the day woodshedding the song in her dressing room. "I was kind of nervous," the eight-time GRAMMY winner and 17-time nominee admits to GRAMMY.com. "But I thought, 'We're going to send some love to him and do this song of his.'" Despite "Black Hole Sun" not immediately being in Jones' wheelhouse, the performance was a spectral success. "It was probably one of the most beautiful live moments I've ever had," she says. "I don't know if his ghost was in the room or what, but it carried me through that song like I could have never imagined."
"It's just one of those moments I'm really glad we could capture," Jones adds, "because I don't even know if I'll play that song again."
"Black Hole Sun'' concludes her first-ever live album, 'Til We Meet Again, which drops April 16 on Blue Note. If Jones hadn't recorded all of her gigs for the past eight years, each of its 14 tracks could have evaporated with the final piano chord. Sumptuous versions of her staples like "I've Got to See You Again" (in France, in 2018) and "Sunrise" (in Argentina, in 2019) demonstrate how Jones has developed her improvisatory muscles over her two-decade career.
Jones curated 'Til We Meet Again as a response to COVID and a nearly concert-free year. Now that vaccines are rolling out (her second shot is around the corner), she's ready to jump back on stage when the time is right. Until then, for those unaware of Jones' live prowess, this impeccably recorded live album is more than enough to chew on.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Norah Jones over Zoom to discuss the origin of 'Til We Meet Again, the thrill of collaborating with the greatest jazz musicians alive and her hot-and-cold relationship with the word "jazz."
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
I'm curious about the timing of 'Til We Meet Again. Had the idea for a live record been percolating for a while, or was it a response to a year without gigs?
More the latter. I'd done a couple of live DVD types of things where you plan to do it and you record it with a camera crew, but this came about [because] I was listening to one of the last shows we did. We've recorded every show for the last eight years because… technology, you know [chuckles]. It's easy to do!
And so I was listening to one of the last shows we did and it just felt so good, especially in the absence of having access to live music and playing shows. So I wanted to put it out. I just decided then, last summer. And then we decided to sort of comb through some of the more similar band-lineup shows to that show to make sure we get the best version of everything, basically.
Where was that show you mentioned?
That show was in Rio. It was in December 2019. We did a South American tour with a trio, which has been a fun setup for me recently. More piano-based.
Who was the rhythm section? Was Brian [Blade] on drums?
Yeah, Brian on drums. In December, it was Jesse Murphy on bass, but the first tour I did with that setup was with Chris Thomas on bass and Brian on drums. And actually, Pete Remm was on organ. This was, like, 2018, maybe. So we went back to those first shows I did with that setup and took some of that stuff because it was a really special opening-up of the songs with that setup.
I mean, I've always loved the Bill Evans Trio [Sunday at the Village Vanguard]. That's pretty great. Classic. And I love some of the classic piano-player/singing trios. Like, Shirley Horn had a great thing. I love hearing Nina Simone when it's just bass, drums and her. Even if there's a bigger band, I love when it's stripped back.
All you need is Nina.
Really, all you need is Nina! But when the drum kicks in with that light, little groove, it's pretty great.
While listening to 'Til We Meet Again, I was more absorbed in the songs than noticing how many instruments there were. Is it mostly trios or are there quartets and such?
Well, it's mostly a trio, but I did have an organ on quite a bit of it. For me, that's a lot different than having a guitar. I don't know why. The thing missing from this album that has been present, I feel like, for my whole career, is the guitar. Guitar has been a big part of most of the songs I do. Not all of them. But at least touring, this is the first time I've toured without a guitar. Over the last few years, I've dabbled without a guitar. I mean, I play a little guitar.
This album had a few different instruments on it, though, because the songs were in Rio where we had a percussionist sit in and also a flute player. Jorge [Continentino] sat in. Then, on one song, Jesse Harris sat in on guitar in Rio, as well.
Not that he's on this record, but on the topic of the organ, I was just thinking about how you've played with Dr. Lonnie Smith.
Oh, yeah. He played on Day Breaks. That was amazing.
When you survey the last two decades, how would you say you've developed as a live performer?
I mean, it's all just an evolution. And I'll continue to change, right? I think what's cool about this album is that I'm close to it. I've been changing and adapting for the last 20 years, but to someone who might not have seen me live recently or at all, maybe it represents a whole different side of these songs.
The way you guys are taking control of the rhythms, shifting and shaping them, is really nice.
Yeah. Brian's so fun to play with. It's a joy, you know? And also, the nice thing about playing with a trio is that you can go to different places without planning it out. It's a little easier without multiple chordal instruments.
Brian is amazing. He will go wherever the moment takes him in the music. He's not tied to anything. But he'll also lay down the sickest groove [laughs], you know what I mean? So, he's the best of everything.
I get the sense that you're just as much a fan of your accompanists as the people in the audience.
Oh, definitely. I saw Brian play when I was in high school. I went to see him play with Joshua Redman. It might have been Chris Thomas on bass? I remember because I was telling them about it and they were mad at me for saying [naive voice] "Oh, I was in high school!" They're only a few years older than me. But I've been a fan of Brian's for a long time, now, absolutely.
I was just thinking about how you're from the singer/songwriter realm and Joni Mitchell is, too, obviously. But she played with the greatest jazz musicians in her day and now you're doing the same. That must feel pretty cool.
Yeah, some of my favorite recordings of Wayne Shorter are on Joni's albums! But, I mean, I come from a jazz background. I came from that into the singer-songwriter world, kind of. So I feel like going back to playing with people who come from that world also feels very natural.
Norah Jones performing on "Saturday Night Live" in 2002. Photo: Dana Edelson/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images
You totally don't have to address this if you don't want to, but back in 2002, it must have been annoying to have to prove your jazz roots to people.
Not really. I mean, I felt very conflicted about the jazz roots 20 years ago because I felt like my album was a departure. I feel like people called me a jazz singer when that wasn't representative of the actual album. I didn't want people to not realize what "jazz" was. It was kind of loaded.
I used to be part of the jazz police [laughs]. Like, I used to be that kid. Then, my album was so successful and it really wasn't jazz. It was a foray into different things for me. I didn't want other people to think it was for jazz, for jazz's sake. I was like, "No! Billie Holiday! Not me!" Does that make sense?
Of course. There's folk, soul, country…
The genre titles are tricky for me. But I don't really care anymore. And I didn't then, that much. I just felt like it was confusing.
I haven't met a single musician in the jazz world that's fully comfortable with the word. They're always trying to push back on it, and rightfully so. They've been doing that since the '40s or earlier.
I guess! Have they? Was it weird for people back then? It seems like back then, it was just what it was.
Really! I feel like these days, I'm more connected to those roots of mine than I was. I feel like for a while, I kind of strayed from that world and was excited to be all things. And now, I'm really excited to have that basis in what I do. I just don't like genres. I find them kind of silly. Sorry, GRAMMYs! [laughs]
No apologies! To me, genres are only useful if you're in a record store and you don't know what to buy.
Before I jump back into the record, are you a Yusef Lateef fan?
[excitedly] You know what? I just started listening to him this week! It's amazing! It kind of sounds like that Éthiopiques stuff a little bit. Where's he from?
He was from Detroit.
What did he say about [the word "jazz"]?
I've been told he gave a dissertation where he brought up representatives from the dictionary and challenged them on the word "jazz," because it had connotations of being dirty or low-grade, with meanings ranging from "nonsense" to "fornication."
I get that. The connotations are that it's not as serious an art form, basically. It's such a silly thing, right? It's not silly at all—I get it—but even my own feelings about it are so silly sometimes.
Well, what are your feelings about it?
It's just music, you know? To get hung up on a word, I think, is not about the music. I respect what he's saying. I'm not talking bad about him. I'm just saying that in general, the whole conversation about it is so funny.
I like that Bird called it "modern music" instead.
I love that. I'm in for that.
So, I was going to ask about which of these gigs were particularly memorable for you, but you sort of answered that question when you said it grew out of the Rio show. What about the others, though? Any interesting stories attached to them?
Actually, the France gig was one of the first gigs we did with this band that felt so good. The audience was great. I remember after that show, thinking, "Ah, man! That was awesome!" So when we were going back to think about shows, I said, "Remember that gig in Perpignan that was so good? Do you have that recorded?" And he did. So that was part of it.
And then the Ohana Festival was so special because it was just a big, huge, outdoor festival, which we hadn't really done out with this band. I didn't know how it would go over, but it was awesome. We actually did the song "It Was You," which is from an EP I put out a couple of years ago [2019's Begin Again], and I don't even think it had come out yet. Even if it had, it wasn't something a lot of people had. I don't think it was a hit! [laughs].
So, we played this song from it and the audience didn't know it at all, but the reaction was everything I've ever wanted for that song. It was so great. I'm just so glad we captured that too, you know?
It's the energy feedback! That's what we're missing when we're singing for each other through tinny phone speakers.
Yeah, exactly. During this pandemic, I've made playlists to just feel good, and one of them had a Bob Marley Live track on it. Every time the song comes on and I feel the energy of that, it just makes me kind of electric, you know? It makes me so happy. That's what I was trying to capture. That's what the Rio show had, 100%.
The Brazilian audience is so vocal as well, which helps, but it just had that energy. We were trying to keep that throughout the album. So, there were some songs that there were two great versions of, but one where you could just feel the live energy more. We would choose the energy one. We tried to keep that going.
Norah Jones performing in Florence, Massachusetts, in 2019. Photo: David Barnum
I love the cover of "Black Hole Sun" here. It's unexpected coming from you, but it fits like a glove. Can you talk about your relationship with Chris Cornell's music?
Yeah, I grew up listening to Soundgarden and loved it. I was a kid of the '90s, you know? It was on the air at all times. I got to meet him once. He was super sweet. We shared a dressing room bathroom at a festival [chuckles]. At the Bridge School [Benefit], actually. He was such a great singer, so I was a fan.
And when he died, we happened to be playing the same theater the night he died, in Detroit. I think we were the first people to play it since he played there that week. My guitar player told me that morning that this is where he had played. So, I thought it would be nice to play "Black Hole Sun" as a tribute.
I practiced it all day in my dressing room. I was kind of nervous, but I thought, "We're going to send some love to him and do this song of his." It was probably one of the most beautiful live moments I've ever had. The song is beautiful and, somehow, the music, his spirit—I don't know if his ghost was in the room or what, but it carried me through that song like I could have never imagined.
It's just one of those moments I'm really glad we could capture because I don't even know if I'll play that song again. It was such a special time to play it and I don't know if I could ever recapture that. Just the vibe in the room, you know.
I feel like a different musician might do a more melodramatic version of "Black Hole Sun." I appreciate that you just inhabited the melody and let it speak for itself because I think he was a Beatles- or Kurt Cobain-level melody writer.
Oh, totally. I'd known that song forever, but I'd never tried to play it. And when I was learning it that day, I was like, "Holy crap! This song is crazy! It's so good; it's so unique; it's so interesting." And the lyrics are so beautiful as well.
What's your plan for 2021 and beyond now that we're all hopefully getting our vaccines? I'm sure you're raring to return to the stage.
Yeah, I'm so excited! I get my second shot in a few weeks. I'm really excited to return to the stage, but I don't know when. I'm just going to wait until things completely return. I'm going to let everyone who is really raring to go, go. I can't imagine doing it before 2022, but I'm down if it happens! [laughs] I'm ready!
The problem might be that everyone will want to go back out at once.
Yeah. And also, I'm cool for a minute. I don't know. I don't want to cobble it together. The half-capacity thing… I'll go to those shows, but I don't know. I don't want to jump the gun myself, but I'm excited.