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Peter Malick and the ‘other’ Norah Jones album

Peter Malick knew he’d turned a corner in his songwriting, even if he’d been at it for only two years. After all, the Boston-bred musician had spent three decades scratching out a living as a blues guitarist before he began composing his own material in 1998. He’d learned from the extraordinary performers he’d played with starting as a teenager, like Otis Spann, John Lee Hooker, and Big Mama Thornton. He’d even played with Muddy Waters on a few occasions. So he knew it when he found his own voice in songs that blended his blues roots with more-contemporary lyrics and chords that begged for textural sonic embellishment.

The problem was, Malick needed someone else’s voice to bring his own to life. His new songs just weren’t right for his vocal style. They deserved gentler, more melodic treatment. They needed to be caressed as much as sung. So in the summer of 2000, he found himself in New York City scouting for singers. And when he walked into the Living Room, a small club on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he found his vocalist: Norah Jones.

"I was instantly taken by her voice," he says today. "I had just started this modest label in my living room, and my writing had taken this turn. I was looking for a voice to do my new songs justice — and there she was."

Malick and Jones hit it off. A few months later, he assembled a band, and they played a series of dates in New England blues clubs that culminated in sessions at South Boston’s Room 9 from Outer Space studio. Malick sat on the six songs they’d cut together, waiting until he could afford to finish a full album. Meanwhile, Jones signed a deal with Blue Note and became very, very famous.

Now Malick has stopped sitting on those tracks. Earlier this month, they were released as the seven-tune EP New York City (Koch Records), by the Peter Malick Group featuring Norah Jones, a disc that’s at least as good as Jones’s multi-million-selling Blue Note debut, Come Away with Me. It opens with Jones wrapping the delicate gauze of her voice over the wounded lyrics of the title track. Her soft, subtle delivery makes the wistful reminiscences all the more poignant as Malick’s chords move gently beneath and his delicate guitar flourishes, slide tones that mingle with equally sympathetic Mellotron, underscore the verses and choruses.

Malick gets to trade phrases with Jones on the Stones-like "Things You Don’t Have To Do," a number with richer, bolder blood than anything on Come Away with Me. There’s also the break-up song "Strange Transmissions," which channels Daniel Lanois’s shimmering productions, and lovely covers of Dylan’s "Heart of Mine" and Magic Sam’s blues classic "All Your Love." Jones transforms the latter from a bold declaration into a tough but aching plea. Malick also plays it slow and smooth, his rich tone emulating Sam while he adds his own sonic tension.

Malick says he last spoke to Jones in mid May: "We’ve stayed in touch, and she was really enthusiastic about the recordings until recently." She’d have reason to be still if a small music-biz battle hadn’t been waged before Blue Note withdrew its objections to the EP’s release. Obviously Blue Note would rather you bought a new Norah Jones album than New York City, since it has invested heavily in her career. And Malick’s disc should do well. More than 40,000 copies had been ordered by record stores a month before its release, and that’s a giant number by indie-label standards.

Thanks to his deal with Koch, Malick, who now divides his time between Los Angeles and Boston, has the fuel to finish his album. He’s planning to return to Room 9 soon and record eight more songs with a line-up of guest vocalists that includes Boston singer-songwriter Jess Klein, Philly’s Antje Duvekot, LA-based Kirsten Proffit, and his daughter Mercy. "When we’re finished we’ll release a full-length featuring the tracks with Norah and with these singers. Then I’ll probably tour behind the album in early October."

Meanwhile, the 51-year-old continues to chase his Muse. "As a musician, I still tend to default to being a Chicago blues player, but the songs I’m writing have led me to a new context for it, so I hear a lot of things differently. I’m likely to push the sounds and lines I’d normally play in new directions. I guess it’s just evolution."

Issue Date: August 8 - 14, 2003
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