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Posts Tagged ‘Brian Michel Bacchus’

When last we met, our hero (along with Bruce Lundvall) had successfully wooed Norah Jones, and convinced her that the landmark Jazz diskery, Blue Note Records was just the place for her to launch what would prove to be one of the most storied recording careers of the past quarter century. We pick up the thread of the tale, and find Mr. Bacchus assisting young Ms. Jones in the selection of materiel for her first project, and after a misstep in choosing a producer, he gets serious and brings in a legend. The result was the smash debut “Come Away With Me.”

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Norah Jones

NORAH JONES

When I got back to the office on Monday, I was really excited to play everything for Bruce because I knew he would dig it. Of the 9 tracks, there were 4 covers in the jazz, country and blues canon; I Didn’t Know About You (Duke Ellington), Turn Me On (John D. Loudermilk), Hallelujah, I Love Him [Her] So (Ray Charles) and Peace (Horace Silver). The rest were all originals; Come Away With Me by Norah, Lonestar by Lee Alexander and Don’t Know Why, Something Is Calling You and The Only Time, all by Jesse Harris. Bruce definitely got it, but I know he would have liked some more jazz standards. I think folks there (except publicist JR Rich who championed and loved it from note one) felt the same. A comment I remember hearing several times was, “ This is great, but what are we (Blue Note Records) going to do with it?” It was certainly unlike anything else we had on the label. Eventually everyone came around, including Capitol Records President Roy Lott, because it was just that good and because of the unassuming and down-to-earth charm of Norah herself.

Of the 9 keeper tracks, I brainstormed with Shell White to press up an EP of 6 tracks to give to Norah to sell at gigs while we got about planning her first record. That EP was First Sessions and would prove pivotal in spreading the word via some of the special radio stations out there like KCRW on the west coast and WFUV & WFMU on the east. They and a select group of alternative triple A-like and public radio stations would be early champions of this new singer with the jazzy/bluesy country vibe and start a slow simmer while we regrouped and thought out the next steps.

HORACE SILVER

HORACE SILVER

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THE DUKE

The first discussion was about finding a producer. Norah really wanted to do it herself, but as a young artist on her first recording Shell, Bruce and I felt that she really needed to have someone there to guide things along at the very least. Her first choice was Craig Street, as she loved his work with Cassandra Wilson. Craig is a friend and a great producer and also had a producer deal with Blue Note that involved producing a certain number of projects as part of his deal. He and Norah hit it off and went about planning the sessions. Craig decided to go up to Allaire, a beautiful studio that sits atop the mount above the Shokan Reservoir near Woodstock. Norah wanted to bring Jay Newland back on board, but Craig pressed to use his own engineer, S. Husky Höskulds (Mitchell Froom, Tchad Blake, Sheryl Crow, Tom Waits, Ani DiFrano, Los Lobos). The core of the band became the brilliant drummer Brian Blade, bassist/songwriter/producer Lee Alexander and phenomenal Canadian guitarist Kevin Breit.

Guitar hero Bill Frisell also came up to add some magic with Norah on vocals, piano and Wurlitzer. Tracking went smoothly with no serious time constraints in the most beautiful setting. I had to come back just before mixing started but checked in daily to make sure everything was kosher. When Craig delivered the mixes though, everyone was surprised. Perhaps because everyone was used to listening to our first demos, which were simple and clean vocally, they weren’t prepared for Craig’s (and Norah’s as she was there for the mix) vision that was certainly a departure. We were yet to do a listen down with Norah so I told Bruce to wait to give her our opinions when she came in and we could hear from her first hand where she was coming from and also to let her have time to absorb the mixes herself. A few days later she called me with trepidation in her voice and told me she didn’t like the mixes at all now and didn’t even want to go in and remix again. Of course she felt bad because of the money that was wasted, but anyone who has spent time in major label A&R departments, knows this is part of the territory. I felt bad for Craig as he was her choice and his specialty is guiding artists into uncharted territory to deliver unique masterpieces; Cassandra Wilson, Meshell N’Degeocello, Chris Whitley, Joe Henry and k.d. lang have all benefited from his touch. I was still hoping that some of the tracks could be salvaged, but knew that she had churned out 9 winners in two days before, so was capable of still making this a reasonably priced first recording.

Around the same time Arif Mardin and Ian Ralfini, who had offices over at Atlantic Records, were looking for office space and had approached Bruce Lundvall about possibly renting two offices down at our 304 Park Avenue address. Ever the tactician, Lundvall turned it around and convinced them into running a re-activated Manhattan label, something that Bruce had always wanted to revive. Now that we were looking for a producer again for Norah, Bruce wisely suggested Arif Mardin. I thought the idea was genius. Arif had worked with the cream of the crop of singers and in particular, singers that were also pianists. Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack immediately come to mind.

The problem was convincing Norah, who now really wanted to go it alone after the first misfire. Shell White, her manager, liked the idea but knew we had some convincing to do. It fell on me to bring her around. Norah had two opposing feelings about it; one was trepidation at working with someone as esteemed and part of recording history as Arif and the other was whether they might be in the same place aesthetically because of her youth and his age. I convinced Norah to attend a showcase-like session at SIR rehearsal studios with just her, Arif and myself. She would play some tunes and sing and they would talk. I would just be a fly on the wall and hope for the best. They had a good time just talking about and playing music. Arif put her at ease and the fences eventually came down.

The Queen of Soul

THE QUEEN OF SOUL

ROBERTA FLACK

ROBERTA FLACK

ARIF MARDIN

ARIF MARDIN

Now, to get back into the studio. Norah was adamant about having Jay Newland back as engineer and also going back to where the original magic first happened, Sorceror Sound. She also wanted to keep some of the original basic tracks from those sessions, most importantly Come Away With Me (which would become the title track) and Don’t Know Why (which went on to garner 3 Grammy Awards – Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance!). Lonestar and Turn Me On would also be in the mix. Hank Williams’ Cold Cold Heart and Hoagy Carmichael’s The Nearness of You (with Turn Me On) would satisfy Bruce’s desire for some standards, but the rest would be all originals by Norah, Jesse Harris, Lee Alexander and JC Hopkins. The basic tracks of two songs from the Craig Street sessions were indeed salvaged but Arif didn’t want to confuse the issue, as he wasn’t involved in the original tracking direction, so Jay Newland and Norah produced and remixed them. The rest of the record was cut fresh with some of the same folks and a few new people. Jay Newland and Arif Mardin did their magic in the mix and I learned some valuable producer lessons watching Arif track, comp and mix Norah’s vocals.

While the record was being mixed in the summer of 2001, the recording industry was taking a nosedive. I received and delivered the final masters that September on the heels of 9-11, which felt like the final nail in the coffin. Indeed, a few weeks later, I was let go from Blue Note and got busy getting SoulFeast Music off the ground. Come Away with Me was released in February of 2002 and slowly gained momentum. At first no radio formats outside of AAA and the original core radio base I mentioned before, wanted to play it. A low budget video was also done and MTV initially refused to play that as well. But the groundswell, word of mouth and listener cumes (cumulative audience) on the stations that played it turned everyone around and stations in every format would end up finding a place for it. MTV even called back to get a copy. I knew it was breaking new ground when both CD 101.9 and Z100 here in NYC were both playing it. I received my Gold record in May of that year and by June the record had gone platinum. When the Grammy Awards came around the following February of 2002, Norah and Come Away With Me went on to snag 8 Grammies, a record for a female artist. At the Grammy party Norah, Lee Alexander, Jesse Harris and Jay Newland were still pinching themselves, but this was familiar ground for Arif. When he saw me he shook my hand and said the nicest thing, “This is yours too – I just added a little something here and there.” A little something indeed!

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THE AUTHOR

3 recordings (not counting The Little Willies and El Madmo), 4 movie appearances, 9 Grammies and with over 36 million records sold, Norah is back with The Fall. If you haven’t heard it yet, I recommend you pick it up even if you weren’t a fan. Not only has she grown as a writer, singer and musician, she has given us something completely different without losing her core essence – a trick not easily attained by most artists. Her usual cohorts from the Handsome Band are gone and she’s enlisted Jacquire King whose musical breadth is just what the doctor ordered. Norah first heard his engineering work on a favorite album of hers, Tom Wait’s Mule Variations. His work can be heard on records by artists as different as Kings of Leon, No Doubt, Buddy Guy, Guster, Modest Mouse and Third Eye Blind. The cast of musicians on this particular trip is a cross between rock, soul and country with a little fairy dust sprinkled in. To get what I’m talking about imagine including drummers Joey Waronker (Beck, R.E.M.), and James Gadson (Bill Withers), keyboardist James Poyser (Erykah Badu, Al Green, The Roots), and guitarists Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Los Cubanos Postizos) and Smokey Hormel (Johnny Cash, Joe Strummer). In addition to acoustic and electric instruments, there is the judicious use of synthesizer and programming, something not heard before on any of her previous albums. Downtown songwriters Sasha Dobson and Robert DiPietro are on board not as writers here, but as backing musicians (acoustic guitar and drums respectively). Frequent songwriting collaborators Jesse Harris and Richard Julian also show up in their more traditional roles, but some new songwriting collaborators also emerge – Ryan Adams (Light As A Feather), Make Martin (Young Blood) and Will Scheff (Stuck). The rest of the 8 tracks are entirely composed by Norah from the vantage point of her guitar. She is also playing more guitar here, both acoustic and electric, which adds a different rhythmic edge as well as sonic underpinning. Lyrically she has also grown considerably; consider she was just 20 when she first recorded the First Sessions EP. Almost a decade later she is a completely mature woman that has seen and experienced not just the world, but gained some perspective on the ups and downs of her own personal life. It shows not only in the music and her ability to swim in uncharted waters, but in her sense of grounding that lets you know that this is the same young woman that sang Come Away With Me a mere 10 years ago… just all grown up!

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In the annals of American Jazz one label stands apart from the rest: Blue Note. It was initially founded in 1939 by German ex-pat Alfred Lion and a communist writer named Max Marguilis. Lions and Marguilis were soon joined by photographer Francis Wolf, and the three of them made history together by forming an independent label that quickly garnered a reputation for both giving artists the chance to innovate, and treating them with respect while they were doing it. The rich, deep legacy of the Blue Note A&R direction has left us with gems from masters like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Grant Green, Cassandra Wilson, Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Smith, John Coltrane, Donald Byrd, Eric Dolphy, Horace Silver and on, and on, and…..

Historically, Jazz has been a difficult business to flourish in. Many times, having the opportunity to perform it, or work in it was the only reward that the most committed received. Blue Note had been a place where purists found strength in numbers, and huddled together for needed solace and inspiration to ward off the indifference of a sometimes unwelcoming world. All of that going against the grain can be challenging, but sometimes you get the reward of being right.

At the dawn of the new millenium Brian Bacchus, a young A&R exec who had the three essential qualities of the Jazz man, intellect, soulfulness and an ability to improvise, heard a three song demo by a young female singer/songwriter/pianist that showed promise. The young artist was barely out of her teens, and newly arrived in New York from Texas. She had an estranged father who had shown the Beatles the mystery of the sitar, and she had a low, husky, sexy voice that made you want to listen, but more importantly buy her recordings. The young Texan’s name was Norah Jones, and she not only became the biggets selling artist in the history of Blue Note Records, but the biggest selling artist of this decade. Brian has written a fascinating first person account that details the meeting, signing and recording of the mega star. Enjoy!

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hancock+shorter

HERBIE HANCOCK & WAYNE SHORTER

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JIMMY SMITH

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ART BLAKEY

With the Christmas season upon us, there has been a lot of buzz over several much-anticipated recordings by established artists – Maxwell, Sade and Norah Jones. Norah, of course will always have a special place in my heart because of my pivotal role in launching her career. Over the years I’ve been asked many times about her discovery and signing and I really didn’t think there was anything more interesting to add, but the recent clearing of an old storage space that held tons of cassettes, CDs and DATs made me re-visit my first experiences with Ms Jones with fresh eyes and ears. Sometimes a little time is needed to gain a richer perspective on your experience and sometimes a little nudging from another respected A&R man (the insideplaya) will get you to take another peek and remember some new facets of an artist – that you may have overlooked. That and a dope new album by Norah, “Fall”, gave me a reason to relive some of those beautiful early career moments as well as to measure her growth as a singer, pianist, guitarist, songwriter and even as an actress.

Sometime back in early 2000, Shell White, who worked in royalties at EMI, came to see me with an artist that she had started to manage in her spare time. I had been at Blue Note Records, and doing A&R for a few years by then. At Blue Note we had unusually frequent communication with the royalties department because of the vast Blue Note catalog, and because there were always scenarios where we might have to track down older royalty artists that had changed their address too many times for anyone in royalties to know where to send their check or if they were even alive. Anyway, Shell came in with Norah and met with Bruce Lundvall, my boss and the man responsible for resurrecting/re-activating the label back in the 80’s. He called me in and asked me if I would meet with them, take them to my office, and listen to the CD they brought.

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I sat them both down and quickly got the lowdown on how Norah had recently come to town from Texas, and how Shell had heard her singing background vocals on a project that her husband JC Hopkins was producing with Victoria Williams on Atlantic Records. I listened to the three tracks on the CD. There were two jazz standards and one standout original by songwriter Jesse Harris. The standard that stood out was “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” which is a tough tune to sing especially for a young singer. Norah nailed it vocally even though the accompaniment wasn’t anything outstanding. Norah was on piano with a young bassist and drummer. Later, I would find out that Jesse was recording his publishing demos for Sony/ATV Music Publishing with Norah doing all the vocals – smart move!

After my meeting with Norah and Shell, I went over to Bruce and told him that I wanted to sign her. Her voice was all that and she was a special jazz vocalist, but we really needed to see her live. Bruce listened to the 3 tracks and concurred.

The first time I saw Norah live was at a little downtown club called Deanna’s. She primarily sang and played all jazz standards with an upright bassist and drummer. The band was not too tight, but her singing was great and she accompanied herself well. After that, I went out to see her every chance I got. Norah was also singing and playing in a host of other bands so I went out to see all of them too. Most importantly, in terms of her development, she had started singing in songwriter Jesse Harris’ band and handling not only the piano chair, but doing all the lead vocals.

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JESSE HARRIS

The Living Room (then on the corner of Allen and Stanton in the Lower East Side, and now around the corner on Ludlow) was a favorite spot for Jesse’s group with Norah as well as many other up and coming singer songwriters. The camaraderie among songwriters there as well as the appearance by songwriters like Richard Julian, Jim Boggia, Sasha Dobson and Rebecca Martin certainly influenced Norah on the songwriting tip too.

Norah had also started singing and playing with the Waxpoetic a band that recorded for Atlantic Records. Waxpoetic was the brainchild of Turkish saxophonist/keyboardist, Ilhan Ersahin. Ilhan now owns and runs a great Lower East Side club, Nublu, that has become an incubation spot for some pretty hip bands (Brazilian Girls, Forro In The Dark, Clark Gayton’s Explorations in Dub, Love Trio, etc.) as well as being a hip young label – melding progressive jazz initiatives with electronica and other music.

As Ahmet Ertegun (the founder and head of Atlantic Records) and Ilhan Ersahin were both Turkish and affiliated with Atlantic, it wouldn’t be strange to see Ahmet at Waxpoetic’s gigs that Norah was on. I knew this was trouble and sure enough I got word from Shell White that Atlantic was also knocking on Norah’s door.

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ATLANTIC RECORDS FOUNDER AHMET ERTEGUN

I immediately went to Bruce Lundvall to let him know. I suggested that we sign Norah to a demo deal with us ASAP. This was for two reasons. One, Norah had minimal studio experience, and I felt she needed to get comfortable in the studio as well as better flesh out the skeletons of the performances and recordings that I had heard thus far. Two, a demo deal with Blue Note would at least keep Atlantic at bay for a moment and we would secure the right to match whatever they might offer once the term of our demo deal was up.

My relationship with Norah and Shell White was solid by then, and we spoke almost daily. I had been out to see Norah at almost every gig with either her group, Jesse Harris’ group or Waxpoetic since we first got together. I think this and the fact we had the inimitable Bruce Lundvall, whose track record and old school charm mirrored Ahmet’s, tilted the decision in our favor so Norah agreed to sign with us.

Norah, Shell and I quickly got to organizing her first real demo sessions to get something down on tape. I suggested engineer Jay Newland, whom I had worked with in the past on a myriad of projects. Jay was low-key and a great engineer, both musically and technically. He also had an ear and extensive experience in Jazz, Country, and Blues projects so I knew he would ‘get’ where Norah was coming from, as well as keep her first sessions calm and drama free. They met and Norah loved him.

Next I called Vera Beren at Sorceror Sound to schedule two days. Sorceror was a reasonably priced studio downtown on Mercer Street with great gear and no major frills, so it was a great place to focus and just do music. Jay liked working there too, so I knew it would be a great introductory studio experience for Norah. Little did I know how good it would be!

Meanwhile Norah had been putting the nucleus of a band together as well as writing her own music. Her boyfriend and the bassist in her band, Lee Alexander, would also turn out to be a pretty special songwriter in his own right (“Lonestar,” ” Feeling the Same Way,” ” The Painter Song,” “Seven Years”). Lee and I had first met through a mutual friend and musician, guitarist, engineer Liberty Ellman, who happened to be biding his time getting record biz experience while re-launching his career and label on the East coast. I believe he and Lee knew each other from the Bay Area. Lee sometimes subbed in Liberty’s jazz trio, which had a crazy regular gig at The Rouge, an intimate chill bar owned by actor/director Michael Imperioli in Chelsea. Norah’s gigs with Jesse Harris were also starting to create a little buzz and becoming more co-lead affairs, as she became the focus. She was also starting to debut her own material. Drummer Dan Reiser had been playing in Jesse Harris’ band and was also now on Norah’s gigs. With the addition of guitarists Adam Rogers and Tony Scherr, as well as Jesse himself on guitar, we had the nucleus of the first demo sessions and actually a good part of her debut record, “Come Away With Me”.

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LEE ALEXANDER

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THE BREAKTHROUGH DEBUT

The demo sessions went extremely well and there was a great vibe in the studio. Also on hand was Anoushka Shankar, Norah’s half sister via the great Ravi Shankar, her father. Strangely enough, she had been signed to Angel, the classical sister label to EMI’s Blue Note by my A&R counterpart, Steve Ferrera, without us knowing the connection. Steve, a talented A&R, drummer, songwriter and producer, is now at J Records acting as Clive Davis’ right hand man (Kelly Clarkson, Heather Headley, Chrisette Michele). Anoushka had just been in town touring with her father and brought their tabla player with her to play on a Jesse Harris tune, “Something Is Calling You.” On the 6-track EP “First Sessions,” that was given a limited pressing so that Norah would have something to sell at gigs in the interim before the first CD dropped, the tabla is taken off. Norah felt it was incongruous with the sound of the other 5 tracks, but I always really loved the sound of the tabla on that track. In the two days at Sorceror Sound, Norah recorded and rough mixed 12 tracks! Nine of those tracks were really strong and are still circulating in a few hands. When I finally listened to the mixes I knew we had something special, but I had no idea that this would become the nucleus of what would eventually become one of the biggest selling records in the history of the record business.

to be continued…..

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