Norah Jones’ ‘Pick Me Up Off The Floor’ Triumphs With Luminous Piano Trio Grooves (ALBUM REVIEW)

Sometimes terrific albums are the ones the artist never really intended to make. Abbey Road comes to mind as the prime example among many others. Such is the case for Norah Jones and Pick Me Up Off The Floor, a collection of songs she didn’t release but kept growing on her. After 2016’s Day Breaks, her return to piano-based jazz, she turned away from the album grind and instead started working with a wide array of artists on short sessions. But certain songs practically kept asking her to be recorded. If you didn’t know that, it would be difficult tell as the songs hold together coherently behind her trio of bassist Christopher Thomas and renowned drummer Brian Blade along with several other musicians we will highlight. Her lyrics confront loss, get very dark at times and eventually find light and hope.

Just to get us centered, this is not a straight-forward jazz album. There are hints of jazz but more prominent in the palette of colors are blues, soul, and Americana. It’s also a blurring of themes and topics from the personal and political to specific pain and societal trauma. One could construe the title a couple of ways: as a defeatist cry or a defiant statement of purpose. “Living in this country — this world — the last few years, I think there’s an underlying sense of, ‘Lift me up. Let’s get up out of this mess and try to figure some things out,'” says Jones. “If there’s a darkness to this album, it’s not meant to be an impending sense of doom, if feels more like a human longing for connection. Some of the songs that are personal also apply to the larger issues we’re all facing. And some of the songs that are about very specific larger things also feel quite personal.”

The opener “How I Weep” marks the first time she began writing poetry. Eventually several of her poems found their way into the album. On this tune, she mourns loss pensively over piano and a bed of strings with lyrics –“How I weep for the loss/And it creeps down my chin/For the heart and the hair/ For the skin and the air/That swirls itself around the bare/How I Weep”  We get the polar opposite on the rootsy “I’m Alive,”  made in Chicago with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy (and his son Spencer on drums), where Jones inserts her own silver lining into the haze of the modern news cycle: “She’s crushed by thoughts at night of men / Who want her rights and usually win / But she’s alive, oh she’s alive.”

During her session a month with a different singer, band, player, or engineer the core of this album came together as she, Blade, and Thomas made seven songs in three days. The album represents just three, however. “Hurts to Be Alone,” is a slinky soul-jazz number that finds Jones on piano, Wurlitzer, and Hammond B-3 organ. The sadly waltzing “Heartbroken, Day After” builds to a cinematic end while “Were You Watching” is a haunting dirge whose mysterious verses were co-written by Jones’ real-life friend, poet Emily Fiskio. That collaboration also shaped the album — plus all the Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein she’s been reading to her kids. Blade also pops up throughout: with veteran bassist John Patitucci on the bluesy “Flame Twin,” and Brazilian Girls bassist Jesse Murphy appears on both  the upbeat “Say No More,” rendered by a quintet that has Dave Guy on trumpet and Leon Michels on tenor sax while Jones gives one of her best piano performances; and the trio rendered melancholy “This Life,” which showcases a particularly poignant vocal from Jones over stark piano notes and chords.. 

“I don’t know if I was just in a zone or if this process turned it on, but I’ve felt more creative in the last year than I ever have,” says Jones, who put the final touches on project in early 2020 — some strings here, some harmonies there. You’ll recall she released an album with her roots band, Puss n’ Boots just this past February. Unpredictability has been a hallmark of Jones’ career from the start. Through the darkness emerges the gospel- infused “To Live,” a swaying spiritual Jones originally wrote with Mavis Staples in mind- “If love is the answer, in front of my face / I’ll live in this moment and find my true place.” That one also features Murphy, Guy, and Michels with Nate Smith on drums.

As the album nears its end, it gets more luminous. “Stumble on My Way” features a quintet not heard on any other song, carried principally by an evocative pedal steel. The closer, “Heaven Above,” is a duo with Jones on keys and Tweedy on guitars for a sublime, peaceful close that lets us know Jones has found at least some contentment as these are the last words she sings, “We were dancing/ In the place where your heart was in love/And the pieces were in the right place/Sent from heaven above.”

To these ears, and to those of many, Norah Jones is indeed a blessing sent our way.

 

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