The idea of who Norah Jones used to be came up a lot in the run-up to her album “Day Breaks.”
With covers of standards by Horace Silver and Duke Ellington, and a backing band that includes Dr. Lonnie Smith and Wayne Shorter, the album, which was released Oct. 7, has been presented as “Norah Jones’ return to jazz,” or more specifically, “Norah Jones returns to the sound of her 2002 breakthrough, ‘Come Away With Me.’ ”
Though Jones doesn’t find that description inaccurate, it’s not her first choice. After writing on the guitar for her last few albums, she had lately been gravitating back to the piano, which played a prominent role in her debut. Then in 2014 she performed at the Kennedy Center as part of a 75th anniversary celebration for her label, Blue Note Records, with an all-star lineup that included Shorter, pianist Jason Moran and drummer Brian Blade.
And that got her wheels turning.
“I kind of tiptoed around (the idea) for a while,” she said, explaining she had some hesitation about calling out of the blue. “I just wanted to play with Brian so bad because I wanted to do a few songs that were more … jazz, maybe? Which is a loaded term,” she said.
That label didn’t sit right with her in the “Come Away With Me” days, but she doesn’t mind it as much now, explaining that it came from a protective instinct for a genre she loves.
“It was more about being a former jazz snob in high school and college and wanting to correct people,” she said. “I was like, ‘No, you’ve got to go listen to some really great jazz now.’ This is not what it is, necessarily. Go listen to ‘In a Sentimental Mood’ with John Coltrane and Duke Ellington.”
Jones worked on songs here and there before going in the studio with Blade and bassist Chris Thomas, which eventually expanded to include Shorter with his bassist John Patitucci, among others. But for all her intentions of exploring a genre where many people believe she began, parts of the album kept drifting across categories in a way that resembles, well, a Norah Jones record.
“She has a sound. No matter what she sings,” said Shorter, on the phone from his L.A. home. “Ella Fitzgerald had a sound, Billie Holiday had a sound. Bing Crosby had a sound.
“If you go through the arc today, most of the sounds are like people on the highway sounding like the person in front of them,” he added. “People who took the trail less-trodden – there’s very few people on that trail but that trail took them more places.”
Disregarding expectations has been a theme in Jones’ career since “Come Away With Me” threatened to turn her into Adele for the early ’00s.
“I definitely didn’t want to just do the same thing over and over,” she said. “And I really was proud of my first record, but I was still figuring out my sound. We definitely hit upon it, but I think that I was interested in still exploring.”