Review Summary: "Until I found you, my dear, I thought love was a shame"
Change is a fascinating concept, and one whose nature generates a different reaction in just about everybody. Maybe you’re completely afraid of it, or perhaps instead you’re entirely anxious to not remain static throughout life; either is completely understandable. In a few days, I’m embarking on a new journey outside of my hometown, a place in which I’ve lived for 17 years now. As one can imagine, I’m feeling a whirlwind of emotions inside me as I prepare to step into unknown territory. But many people have particular albums that speak to either their adventurousness or their need for comfort; as for me, I found an album that has spoken to both emotions during this transition into the new chapter in my life. I just didn’t expect the artist to be Norah Jones. Simply put, Day Breaks
is the sound of her debut album Come Away with Me
Jones has, for the most part, blazed a pretty straight career trail so far. She’s always been known for her blend of pop and soft jazz, with a few sprinklings of folk and country here and there. It was only with 2009’s The Fall
and 2012’s Little Broken Hearts
that Jones really considered going outside of the box because of their indie pop stylings, but the smooth pop sound has remained throughout the years. This is why Day Breaks
was a bit of a surprising listen; she returned to her Come Away with Me
roots, with one major exception: this has to be the jazziest record she’s EVER put out. The majority of the recording is sculpted by smooth piano lines, lush horn arrangements, and a much stronger emphasis on letting the instruments do the talking. Yeah, Norah Jones herself still sings a lot, but there are many moments in which she simply allows us to take in the beauty of the fantastic piano work or the tight rhythm section. In fact, the closer “Fleurette Africaine,” originally a Duke Ellington number, is an entirely instrumental tune that’s often dominated by the saxophone playing of - no joke - Wayne Shorter! It’s fantastic that such a jazz legend could make it on this album, and he’s on the entire thing.
There’s still the occasional pop song here and there, though, proving that Norah still maintains the accessibility of her old work. “Tragedy” might have some subtle and somewhat complex shifts in mood, but it’s all anchored by an easygoing rhythm section and a subdued vocal performance. “Flipside,” on the other hand, could have easily been slotted into a 70s Motown soul record, and its bombastic chorus is such a rush of excitement among the sneaky-sounding verses. But the way Day Breaks
celebrates both adventure and maturity is why it stands above Jones’ other pieces. Every song has at least an undercurrent of jazz, as the jazz itself is the true focus here, but the bevy of variations the singer-songwriter adds to the album’s core is what makes it so interesting. Just listen to the swingin’ vibe of “It’s a Wonderful Time for Love”; Norah’s vocal performance immediately recalls Frank Sinatra’s classic 40s-era vocal jazz standards, and the jaunty rhythm work perfectly compliments her voice. But then it’s instantly followed by an almost waltz-like track in “And Then There Was You” which features lavish strings and a much slower tempo. Then that’s followed by a conventional pop/rock ballad with “Don’t Be Denied.” And yet it’s still distinctively Norah Jones! She’s like a genre chameleon on Day Breaks
. What's neat, too, is that her compositions tip-toe around jazz conventions, but the album still retains an incredibly comfortable and cozy atmosphere, and the whole vibe is very relaxing.
Finally, the musicians also deserve a lot of credit for their work here. Norah Jones is still definitively the bandleader (obviously that’s the case, given it’s still her record), but her decision to put more focus on the backing instrumentation paid off significantly. These people seem well-seasoned to deal with a variety of styles, and they couldn’t sound tighter or more natural than they do here. Whether it’s the soft rock of “Day Breaks,” the danceable pop/soul of “Flipside,” or the extremely frequent key changes of “Peace” and “Tragedy,” nothing seems insurmountable to them here. It also seems that Norah’s piano playing is much stronger here than on past records. We didn’t get to hear her work on the keys as much on Little Broken Hearts
, but with Day Breaks
, her smooth soloing and keen ear for dynamics blend flawlessly with her band. More than anything, however, Day Breaks
leaves me very excited for Norah Jones and her future albums. It may be her most jazz-driven record, but its heightened sense of adventure and experimentation is highly welcome. When Come Away with Me
was released, her message was clear: “I’m a classier and more unconventional take on mainstream pop.” Years later, this still rings true… it just takes some risks and tweaks to perfect that idea. And you can bet I’ll be listening to this album in the coming days as I adjust to the new chapter in my life, because Day Breaks
sounds like a refreshing new chapter in Norah’s career as well.