Norah Jones Returns to Form on ‘Day Breaks’
Norah Jones makes a stunning return to form on Day Breaks, her first new album in four years.
Cutting straight to the chase, eclectic musician Norah Jones returns to form on her latest album, Day Breaks. Back in 2002, Jones began as a jazz artist with some folk, pop, and singer/songwriter cues. Following her debut, Come Away with Me, she ventured beyond the script, revisiting it at times, but never fully completely returning to it. Day Breaks, hence, marks a full-fledged return to her jazz-pop sensibilities.
If Come Away with Me was soundly crafted if somewhat safe, Day Breaks incorporates more oomph – more fire. The effort begins coolly with “Burn,” co-written with Sara Oda. Even though it’s a record characterized by its subtlety, it’s enigmatic and packs a punch nonetheless. The oxymoron of sorts features jazz legend Wayne Shorter on soprano saxophone. One thing is for sure – Jones shores up her jazz fan base from the jump.
Following “Burn” is another soulful original, “Tragedy.” A pre-release track, “Tragedy” retains the glory that built anticipation for Day Breaks. It initiates with soulful vibes, thanks to a combo of piano, organ, bass, and drums. The sound blends singer-songwriter, jazz, soul and beyond, playing to her eclecticism. At her best, Jones delivers a sound vocal performance in which the laziness and richness of her voice create a formidable combination. Most surprising is the range she showcases towards the end.
“Flipside,” co-written with Pete Remm, continues Jones’ victory lap on Day Breaks. It opens with rhythmic piano, which transforms into abstract-sounding jazz harmonies. Throughout its course, there’s a great sense of intensity. Dr. Lonnie Smith guests on Hammond B-3 organ, further amplifying the soulfulness (Jones also plays organ and other keyboards). “Flipside” has a consistent enigmatic quality, which proves to be an exceptional touch. Among the best moments is when Norah “belts it out” on the chorus:
“I can’t stand when you tell me to get back…”
“It’s A Wonderful Time for Love” strips things down simpler than “Flipside,” with the instrumentation comprising of Jones on vocals and piano, acoustic bass, and drums. This particular record doesn’t sound new – it sounds vintage. Amazingly, Jones and co-writer Oda compose a convincing neo-torch song, lyrically and musically.
“And Then There Was You,” once more co-written with Remm, contrasts, expanding to trio with string quintet. Even with the addition of strings, “And Then There Was You” still sounds like a jazz standard, not a newly composed original. Relaxed and beautiful, Jones flexes – in the subtlest, most chill way.
“Don’t Be Denied”
After five originals, Jones opts for a cover, “Don’t Be Denied.” A Neil Young classic, Jones makes “Don’t Be Denied” her own, intact with bluesy instrumental touches. Once more, the personnel expands including horns and background vocals. Notably, Jones pushes vocally, contrasting her subtle, jazzier tunes. Ultimately, “Don’t Be Denied” ranks among the standouts.
Title track “Day Breaks” gives Day Breaks another contrast. Another Remm songwriting collaboration, “Day Breaks” embraces more of a pop/rock sensibility…sort of. Interestingly, it’s as if Jones looked to continue the detour of “Don’t Be Denied.” Even with “Day Breaks” eschewing jazz, it’s difficult to categorize. Most importantly, it’s another worthwhile piece of the pie, with the return of Wayne Shorter.
“Peace” is another cover, this time digging into the jazz catalogue (Horace Silver). Fittingly, Shorter stays onboard, accompanied by trio. Vocally, Jones sounds as smooth and radiant as ever. “Once I Had a Laugh” follows, giving the album one of only two songs exclusively written by Jones. “Laugh” has an oomph about it, firmly planted in classic, jazz tradition. The horns are the “cherry on top.”
“Sleeping Wild” is the sole original Jones didn’t write. Written by partner-in-crime Sara Oda, it isn’t dissimilar in sentiment than the collaborative tracks. Particularly like “Burn” and “It’s A Wonderful Time For Love,” “Sleeping Wild” is cool, low key, yet packs a punch.
“Carry On” served as the promo single for Day Breaks. Lazy, it’s chocked-full of old school feel. The first impression: this sounds like signature Norah Jones. The vocals are relaxed – she never over- nor under-sings. The production is exceptional, comprised of piano, organ, bass, and subtle drums. It doesn’t pack a mighty punch but certainly feels respectable, filled with class.
“Fleurette Africaine (African Flower),” a Duke Ellington song, concludes Day Breaks. Ambitious, Jones’ vocals are few here, as “African Flower” is mostly instrumental. It won’t be the “go to” song of Day Breaks, but “African Flower” is appropriately placed at the end.
All in all, Norah Jones nails it on Day Breaks. She’s able to preserve the classicism of jazz and incorporate a few wrinkles into the mix. Vocally, she sounds better than ever. Her musicianship is awe-inspiring. She brilliantly chooses her collaborators, with the results bearing the fruit.
Gems: “Burn,” “Tragedy,” “Flipside,” “Don’t Be Denied” & “Carry On”
Norah Jones • Day Breaks • Blue Note • Release: 10.07.16
Photo Credit: Blue Note