The Anniversary

Come Away With Me Turns 20

Blue Note Records
Blue Note Records

When Norah Jones’ debut album Come Away With Me first hit 20 years ago, I admittedly did not grasp its revolutionary status. I knew that it was beautiful and cozy and felt excited about there being an entire record my mom and I could enjoy together. But, on top of winning literally all of the major Grammys in 2003 and being an immaculate fusion of jazz, pop, country, folk, and blues, it’s important to remember that Come Away With Me was a game-changer for its record label, the famed jazz incubator Blue Note, which, until then, had never released an album as unjazzy as Jones’.

Founded in 1939, Blue Note Records was originally best known for “hard bop” jazz before expanding outwards to avant-garde and free jazz. Its busiest decades were the 1950s and ’60s, where they released recordings by genre standard-bearers Bud Powell, Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, Herbie Hancock, Cecil Taylor, and dozens more. By the ’90s, Blue Note had shown its ability to evolve with the changing jazz landscape, notably putting out James Hurt’s improvisational, hip-hop-adjacent debut Dark Grooves, Mystical Rhythms (1999).

Blue Note was the label Jones — born Geethali Norah Jones Shankar to famed sitarist Ravi Shankar and concert producer Sue Jones — wanted to be on, despite the fact that there was no precedent for the type of genre-blended pop music she planned to release. And Jones knew her jazz history, majoring in jazz piano at the University of North Texas, where she also sang with the UNT Jazz Singers. As a kid, Jones would listen to Bill Evans, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, and Billie Holiday. In high school, she’d win the DownBeat Student Music Awards for Best Jazz Vocalist — twice. While attending college, she crossed paths with future collaborator Jesse Harris, and in 1999 she relocated from Texas back to New York City (where she spent the first part of her childhood), to form a band with Harris.

In the early days of Jones’ professional music career, she did the typical post-collegiate musician thing: waitress by day, perform in local clubs by night. Success didn’t roll up all at once; after about a year of doing this and still no record deal, she briefly considered moving back to Texas until her mother urged her to keep going. Good thing too, because on the night of her 21st birthday, a Blue Note employee happened to be at her singing gig with the JC Hopkins Biggish Band. Upon auditioning for label CEO Bruce Lundvall, Jones was signed on the spot, despite a few misgivings about her pop- and country-leaning demos.

With the understanding that a still-green Jones needed to hone her sound a little, Blue Note A&R agent Brian Bacchus thought Jones would work well with producer/engineer Jay Newland, who had a wealth of experience with jazz, blues, country, and folk. Together, Newland and Jones recorded nine demos, four of which made their way onto Jones’ 2001 sampler EP, First Sessions, and the rest were saved for Come Away With Me.

Recorded at Sorcerer Sound in NYC and Allaire Studios in Shokan, NY, Come Away With Me also famously featured production by Arif Mardin, who’d previously worked with Jones’ idol, Aretha Franklin, plus a bevy of other big names (Dionne Warwick, The Bee Gees, Queen, Roberta Flack, Chaka Khan, Laura Nyro). Meanwhile, Jones’ creative collaborator Harris offered up a song he’d written for his 1999 album, Jesse Harris & The Ferdinandos. Jones’ cover of “Don’t Know Why” became her first and most successful single, winning her three Grammy Awards in 2003 for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. Even to this day, it’s Jones’ only single to hit Billboard’s Top 40.

For all of its chart bombast and eventual best-selling status, Come Away With Me actually took a couple of tries to record, with Mardin brought in the second time around. Jones has talked about not feeling “super comfortable” in the initial recording sessions, given how crowded the room was with unfamiliar faces. Blue Note piled on jazz musicians to serve as Jones’ backing band, with Kevin Breit, Bill Frisell, Adam Levy, Adam Rogers, and Tony Scherr on guitar, Sam Yahel on organ, Jenny Scheinman on violin, Rob Burger on accordion, and Brian Blade, Dan Rieser, and Kenny Wollesen on percussion. Ironically, Come Away With Me is now praised as an especially intimate album, with Jones’ mellow vocals at the forefront.

Listening to Come Away With Me 20 years on, it’s still easy to get caught up in the hype that circled Jones upon its release. A pop record? On Blue Note?? A jazz artist on the same red carpets as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera?? Revolutionary. As The Guardian recently pointed out, critics in 2002 thought that listeners might be drawn to Jones’ chilled-out jazz club sound because they needed some calm post-9/11, which Jones didn’t agree with at the time, but has since agreed that “that could have been part of it.”

Isolate it from the pop-star hype, and you get a relaxed, multifaceted album that finds its leader peacefully leaning into a mesh of genres that interest her. With her cohort of backing musicians, Jones lets everything from lounge jazz to twanging country-folk have their space in the piano bar, opening a typically purist genre like jazz up to new listeners. In the last decade, a song like “Don’t Know Why” has become so ubiquitous that it became one of Marnie Michaels’ cringe-covers on Girls, because of course Marnie, who is hella basic, would listen to Norah Jones. But “Don’t Know Why” is a beautiful song, just like pumpkin spice lattes are tasty and candlelit bubble baths feel nice. Some things just are.

Meanwhile, Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” is given new life as a jazz ballad under Jones’ tutelage. The instrumentation might be groovier, but Hank’s heartbreak remains intact as Jones sultrily moans about a distrustful lover. It’s another fine example of Jones holding jazz up like a mirror to other genres that aren’t as different as we once would’ve thought.

Further down, Jones covers her old favorite, Billie Holiday, with an ambling rendition of “I’ve Got To See You Again.” Sounding far older and wiser than her early twentysomething years, Jones sounds peak sultry and soulful over tinkling piano, bass, and a drawling violin. The bridge is practically a rose-in-mouth tango of instruments, which sound as inviting as Billie’s seductive sentiment.

Though Come Away With Me does not once diverge from its dulcet tones, Jones constantly finds new ways to explore the laidback vibe. (Put another way, her Blue Note debut is never one note.) The ambling “Feelin’ The Same Way” is pop-song perfection in its unobnoxious repetition, and Jones easily communicates its shrugging exhaustion. Later, the title track — the only album cut that has Jones’ sole writing credit — is a silky-smooth ballad about a soothing escape. And there is no forgetting “Turn Me On,” a song that would soundtrack no shortage of Hollywood love scenes (Love Actually comes to mind). “My poor heart, it’s been so dark/ Since you been gone/ After all, you’re the one who turns me off/ You’re the only one who can turn me back on,” Jones near-growls on the bridge — one of the album’s standout vocal moments.

In terms of her classic-meets-contemporary appeal, Norah Jones circa Come Away With Me arguably cleared the way for a wave of soul-pop performers in the years following her debut: Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone, Adele. Jones herself shrugged off the eventual comparisons, telling The Guardian, “It wasn’t stuff I wanted to listen to, and when people would put me in the same category as someone else, I wouldn’t agree. But I had to separate myself from it all. The truth is some great artists came out of that and that’s awesome.” But looking at “the Norah effect” from an industry perspective, you really cannot deny her influence. The numbers speak for themselves.

In addition to winning the Album Of The Year and Best Pop Vocal Album Grammys, Come Away With Me hit #1 on the Billboard 200 and was eventually certified Diamond by the RIAA in 2005. As of 2016, it has sold more than 27 million copies, making it one of the best-selling albums ever recorded. (Though Adele has her beat — 21 has sold more than 31 million copies. Still, where would Adele be without Norah Jones?)

As Jones’ career progressed, she would release seven more albums, the most recent one being last year’s I Dream Of Christmas. While Come Away With Me follow-up Feels Like Home was demonstrably successful, going Platinum and netting Jones a Female Pop Vocal Performance for lead single “Sunrise,” reviews were a little more mixed, and no album of hers reached quite the same fever pitch post-Come Away With Me. But, you’ll notice, Jones has released every album through Blue Note since her remarkable debut. Twenty years on, it’s remarkable — and actually kind of hilarious — to think of Come Away With Me as being a risky venture on Blue Note’s end, especially considering what Jones has done since then, notably bringing in Danger Mouse to produce her 2012 album, Little Broken Hearts and collaborating with everyone from Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong to the Foo Fighters to Dolly Parton to Belle And Sebastian.

For their part, Blue Note took Jones’ gargantuan success as a sign to diversify their output. Though the storied jazz label is best known for sticking to the genre that made it famous, it has expanded outward with albums by Rosanne Cash, the Bird And The Bee, Annie Lennox, Suzanne Vega, Elvis Costello & the Roots, and Norah Jones’ alt-country supergroup Puss N Boots. For that evolution, and the way genres continue to cross over in modern pop, we absolutely have Jones to thank.

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