Norah Jones’ recalls 2002 debut as ‘ whirlwind’

SAN DIEGO — Norah Jones vividly recalls the long walk she took in New York City on Feb. 24, 2003.

It was the day after her chart-topping debut album, “Come Away With Me,” earned her six Grammy Awards — including Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Best New Artist — during a telecast that drew nearly 30 million viewers in the U.S. alone.

But what made the then-23-year-old singer-songwriter’s winter walk memorable isn’t what happened, but what didn’t.

“Nobody even recognized me!” recalled Jones, laughing with delight. “I was always very anonymous. I was never ‘famous’.”

Then and now, maintaining a low profile has suited this New York-born, Texas-raised troubadour just fine.

Her ability to resolutely remain out of the spotlight when not on stage is all the more impressive for several reasons.

Jones’ gently captivating debut album has sold more than 27 million copies worldwide, while her overall album sales now exceed 50 million.

Her high-profile musical collaborators have ranged from Willie Nelson, Keith Richards and Wynton Marsalis to Foo Fighters, Wayne Shorter and Tony Bennett.

And her father is the late Indian music legend Ravi Shankar. She quietly visited him a number of times at the Encinitas home he shared with his wife, Sukanya, and Norah’s half-sister, acclaimed sitar player Anoushka Shankar. The two siblings, who met for the first time in 1997 as teenagers, memorably recorded together on Anoushka’s 2013 album, “Traces of You.”

Last week, Jones launched a tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of “Come Away With Me,” one of the bestselling albums of this century.

Staying grounded

How, one wonders, has Jones remained so grounded and free of any of the affectations of stardom, let alone stayed out of the spotlight for so long when not performing?

“I think that’s partly due to my mom, my friends and the people around me,” replied the married mother of two, speaking earlier this month from Seattle.

“Also, I was signed to a serious record label. I had an amazing publicist and marketing guy, but they were not courting that kind of (high profile coverage).”

Her label, Blue Note, has been the most famous record company for jazz since shortly after its inception in 1939. Its roster includes the sublime singer Cassandra Wilson, who — with Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan — is one of Jones’ all-time favorites.

An alto-saxophonist-turned-pianist and singer, Jones was signed by Blue Note when she was 21. “Come Away With Me” was released when she was 22, after two different recording sessions with two very different producers, Craig Street and Arif Mardin.

The recently released three-CD “Come Away With Me” 20th anniversary box set features a remastered version of the final, Mardin-produced album. It also includes the earlier sessions she did with Street, plus a trove of alternate versions and outtakes.

The results offer fascinating permutations of the album. It also features 14 previously unheard recordings that illustrate Jones’ ability to put a fresh, distinctive stamp on such weathered jazz standards as “When Sunny Gets Blue” and “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.”

Of course, she had several distinct advantages as a young new artist making her first album. There were no commercial expectations for her to live up to, no pressure to make hit singles, no push to become a star here or abroad.

“I didn’t feel I had to prove anything,” Jones agreed. “But I had to get it right. I felt a little pulled in different (musical) directions by people in my life — some friends, some (record company) executives, producers, whatever. …

An understated gem that has aged very well, “Come Away With Me” is dominated by hushed ballads. They proved to be an ideal showcase for Jones’ supple piano playing and earthy yet elegant singing. Like very few artists in their early 20s, she caressed each note she sang and savored the silences between them.

Drawing from jazz, blues, country and soul, the music on “Come Away With Me” was spare and unrushed.

A marvel of nuance and simplicity, Jones performed on the album with an combination of wise-beyond-her-years maturity and wide-eyed youthfulness. Her music was greatly enhanced by the wonderfully sensitive accompaniment of her fellow musicians, including guitarist Kevin Breit, violinist Jenny Scheinman and drummer Brian Blade, who is also helming the drum chair on Jones’ current tour.

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