By Eleni P. Austin

“Just gotta thank my lucky stars tonight, just going to fake it til I make it right, Devil watches every step I take, messin’ with the moves I’m tryin’ to shake, every day we do God’s little dance, never knowing when to take a chance.” That’s Norah Jones, trying to navigate the rocky shoals of life in the 21st century on “Staring At The Wall,” a track off her newest album, Visions.

22 years have passed since Norah Jones released her stunning, 2002 debut, Come Away With Me. Her smoky contralto and distinctive piano stylings played a large part in resuscitating the Jazz genre and provided the iconic Jazz label Blue Note with the biggest selling album in their 80-year career.

She was born Geetali Norah Shankar in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn in 1979. Her mom, Sue Jones was a concert promoter. Her dad, Ravi Shankar was the most famous Indian musician in the world. A Pandit (master) sitar player, as well as a composer of Hindustani Classical music, he shot to stardom back in the ‘60s when Beatles guitarist George Harrison sought him out to learn the intricacies of the traditional East Indian instrument.


Norah got to know her father when they still lived in New York, but she and her mom relocated to Grapevine, Texas, before she started kindergarten. She showed an affinity for music early on, and began singing in the church choir at age five. Growing up, she soaked up the sounds of Sue’s record collection, drawing inspiration from Etta James, Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin, as well as Broadway Original Cast albums from Cats and West Side Story.

She spent her high school years attending the Booker T. Washington School For Performing And Visual Arts. Already an accomplished performer, she took a deep dive into Jazz. On her 16th birthday, she made her solo debut singing and playing during an open mic at a local coffee house.

At University Of North Texas she studied music and honed her skills, performing at a restaurant on the weekends. During this era, she became reacquainted with her famous father, at the same time becoming fast friends with future collaborator Jesse Harris. It was Jesse who encouraged her to return to New York and pursue a musical career.

Making the leap in 1999, she worked in restaurants during the day and performed in downtown clubs at night. While she was happy to be a part of a thriving music scene, she missed home. She found her homesickness diminished when she listening toLone Star musicians like Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zandt. All of her hard work paid off. On the eve of her 21st birthday, she was offered a contract from Blue Note Records.

Launched in 1939, the venerable record label introduced the world to a surfeit of Jazz idioms: Boogie-Woogie, Modern Jazz, Hard Bop, Free Jazz and Be-Bop, to name a few. They launched the careers of giants like Miles Davis, Sidney Bechet, Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, Herbie Hancock, Donald Byrd, Wayne Shorter and Jimmy Smith. By the late ‘90s they signed contemporary Jazz chanteuse Cassandra Wilson, bolstering sales. Norah’s music seemed like a perfect fit.

She had already created a bit of buzz when she guested on guitarist Charlie Haden’s 2001 effort, Songs From The Analog Playground. Tastemaker radio stations like KCRW put her tracks into heavy rotation, priming the cognoscenti for her first album. Co-Produced by industry veterans Arif Mardin and Craig Street, most of the music on her debut consisted of songs written by Norah, her boyfriend, bassist Lee Alexander and old pal Jesse Harris. Come Away With Me arrived in early 2002.

A seamless alchemy of Jazz, Folk and Country, the record began a slow ascent up the charts. Critical acclaim was nearly unanimous. It entered the charts at #139 and by January 2003, it was perched at #1. A few weeks later, the record swept the Grammy Awards Ceremony, winning a total of eight awards. Suddenly, Norah’s music was everywhere. Backlash was swift and immediate. The threat of over-saturation prompted her to redefine her style. Her sophomore album, Feels Like Home, was released exactly two years after her debut.

The record reflected her longtime appreciation for Country music and included tracks from pioneers like Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt alongside her own compositions. Jesse and Lee were still in the mix, but she received some superstar assists from Dolly Parton, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson. Reviews were respectable, but not rapturous. Sales were brisk, but Starbucks patrons and soccer moms were slightly bewildered by her deliberate ramble down the country side of the road.

Since then, she has marched to the beat of her own drummer, collaborating with disparate artists like Ryan Adams, Foo Fighters, Outkast and Danger Mouse. She reactivated the Little Willies, a side project that featured old friends like guitarist Jim Campilongo, drummer Dan Rieser and singer-songwriter Richard Julien. Norah was happy to ride shotgun for the project.

As a solo artist, she released Not Too Late in 2007 and two years later, The Fall, was recorded following her break-up with Lee Alexander. The former relied on what had become her trademark mix of Jazz, Folk and Country. The latter seemed to rebel against everything that came before. 2012’s ….Little Broken Hearts, felt even more experimental. With Danger Mouse in the producer’s chair, it was her most Rock & Roll effort to date. Hailed a Jazz savior a decade before, she seemed to evolve into an Indie Rock High Priestess.

The next couple of years found her collaborating with Green Day front-man Billie Joe Armstrong on an album of Everly Brothers songs and forming Puss n’ Boots, a Countrified trio that included Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper. Somehow, she found time to marry and have two children. 2016 saw the release of her Day Breaks album. Four years later came Pick Me Up Off The Floor. That album arrived in the midst of the pandemic, which meant aborting a co-headlining tour with Gospel-Soul legend Mavis Staples. In late 2021, she released her first Yuletide record, “I Dream Of Christmas.” Now she has returned with her ninth album, Visions.

The album opens with a perfect trifecta of tracks that lock into a Quiet Storm groove. “All This Time” announces itself as Norah’s drowsy contralto wraps around fluttery piano, slyly soulful guitar, nimble bass lines and a trap-kit beat. The sultry mood is set with by sensual lyrics like “Stay with me, flashes of you in white hot heat, stay with me, a moment in time, let’s make it sweet.” Her piano solo is by turns stately, playful and almost spiritual.

“All This Time” folds nicely into the aforementioned “Staring At The Wall.” Bluesy and minor key, the action is propelled by a jittery hi-hat kick, sidewinder guitar, spidery bass and Norah’s melancholy piano notes. Guitars phase and wah-wah as lyrics search for a bit of emotional rescue: “Need to travel out of my own brain, it’s hard to get in rhythm with this pain, someone tell me what the hell is wrong, nights always feel quiet and too long.”

Meanwhile, “Paradise” is a Soulful sing-song, that matches rippling piano chords with fleet fretwork, ambling bass lines and a KerPlunking beat. Lush “La-la-la’s” bookend each verse. This time it’s Norah to the rescue, but deliverance comes with a few caveats: “I’m trying to save you, what is there left to learn, watching all these fires burn, I’m waiting it’s true, I watch you fall, I try to stop, waiting for the pain to drop, I know I’ve got to let you go again.”

The best songs here manage to hopscotch through a plethora of disparate genres, sticking each landing with aplomb. Take the jaunty shuffle of “On My Way.” A breezy whistle connects with thumpy bass, shivery guitar, downcast piano, tropical keys and a muted, click-track beat. En route to an assignation, the ground rules are set: “Only give me what my heart can handle please dear, in the dark dark, you don’t have to be afraid, oh, in the night you can learn to laugh and play, in the light you can face another day.” Chirping bird sounds dart through the mix and honeyed harmony vocals add to the gauzy dreamscape.

“Queen Of The Sea” is a Country-Soul cocktail anchored by scratchy, shifty chunka-chunka guitar, shiftty bass lines, swirly keys, Honky-Tonk piano and a thickset beat. Woulda-coulda-shoulda lyrics give way to a bit of a bitter kiss-off: “Oh, we forgot ourselves and lost what it means to believe, we forgot to hold ourselves, and you made a mess out of me but I’m finally free.” Blowzy horns embroider the margins of the melody and a defiant piano outro mirrors the lyrics’ declaration of independence.

Then there’s gossamer grace of “Swept Away In The Night.” Translucent Omnichord notes wash over Gospel-flavored piano, a kick-drum beat, willowy guitar and sturdy bass. Her vocals ebb and flow, caressing lyrics that speak to that fugue state that accompanies those first stirrings of love: “I was swept up in the night, someone’s arms who held me tight, can’t explain the dance or the dream, what I felt was quite extreme.” Honeyed harmonies wrap around a brassy fanfare on the break, before holy roller piano chords usher the song to a close.

Finally, “Running,” which is also the first single, somehow effortlessly echoes ‘70s Soul antecedents like Aretha Franklin and Minnie Ripperton. Tart piano notes, tensile bass and sleek guitars are tethered to a galloping gait. Retreating from darkness and moving toward the light, lyrics attempt to outrun temptation: “In the night, the devil knocks on my door, I keep running, oh, I keep running away, another life and the same thing happened before, I keep running, oh I keep running away, oh and he begs me to stay…oh will he take me away.” There’s a shimmer to this sadness that’s simply irresistible.

Other interesting songs include the woozy “I Just Want To Dance,” which blends shivery Wurlitzer, sparkly guitar, a second-line horn section, flinty bass, twinkly electric piano and a stutter-step beat. Then there’s the low-slung title-track and the frisky “I’m Awake.” The record winds with the final two cuts, “Alone With My Thoughts” and “That’s Life.” On the former, Norah takes us to church. Plaintive piano brushes up against upright bass, whispery organ and a tick-tock beat. Contemplative lyrics offer up this straightforward benediction: “Alone with my thoughts, with my thoughts, I’m alone, I toll and distract in a song, I’ll send you a prayer and a piece of home, my love is for you, ooh, my love is for you.” Elegiac trumpet and saxophone elegantly unfurl on the break, but the piano gets the last word.

The latter is an expansive number that is the record’s tour de force. Mournful piano chords give way to Girl Group harmonies, crushed velvet keys, vroom-y bass and a thwoking back-beat. Lyrics catalogue a series of highs and lows charting the vagaries of life: “You get lost, you get found, you find love, come unwound, talk to much, hit the ground, you break up, you break down, down, down.” But the alluring chorus of “that’s life, that’s life, that’s life” keeps the listener from wallowing in the mire. Norah’s piano is at it’s Jazziest on the break, as thready organ sidles around the stacked vocalese. “You get up, you fall down, you get up again.” This record was produced by multi-instrumentalist and ex-Dap King, Leon Michael. Between the two of them, he and Norah played nearly all the instrumentation: piano, Wurlitzer, organ, Omnichord, electric piano, acoustic and electric guitars, drums, bass, tambourine, tenor and baritone sax. They also received assistance from Brian Blade and Homer Steinweiss on drums, Jesse Murphy on upright bass and Dave Guy on trumpet. In a recent interview, Norah noted that most of the songs here never strayed to far from their original demo form.

Visions is self-assured, lean and unfussy. It’s also completely captivating. Norah Jones casts a spell from the opening track. When she croons “Stay with me,” promising “I’ll make it easy.” It’s true, she does.