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Can't Keep Up With Jones

Young, jazz-trained songstress breaks through in a big way at the Grammys show in New York.

February 24, 2003|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Norah Jones, a young, jazz-trained Texan who found her songwriting voice in the small clubs in this city, dominated the 45th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday night by capturing the marquee categories of year's best album, record and new artist.

The diminutive Jones, wide-eyed and beaming, seemed as surprised as anyone that her debut album had so thoroughly swept an event that many thought would belong to Bruce Springsteen.

The veteran New Jersey rock hero was expected by many to be celebrated for his album "The Rising," a Sept. 11-themed work that seemed to have the right resonance for the show's return to New York after five years in Los Angeles. Instead, Springsteen settled for three trophies in the rock sub-categories and, perhaps showing the healing process of a community, none of the New Yorkers who acted as rotating hosts mentioned the felling of the World Trade Center in 2001.

The 23-year-old Jones said she expected to hear Springsteen's name in the best album category. "I expected that, too. This is insane. I was happy with two. I didn't need this." Jones walked away with five, while the "Come Away With Me" album also won a songwriting award for Jesse Harris, producer of the year for Arif Mardin and the best engineering honor for Husky Hoskulds and Jay Newland.

The surprise win for Jones has cemented the reputation for the Grammys as an unpredictable entertainment gala. With wins for the "O, Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack as best album last year and for Steely Dan's "Two Against Nature" the previous year, the voters in the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences have proven difficult to handicap.

Unlike those albums, however, Jones had in her corner a potent, ubiquitous hit song in "Don't Know Why," a song that suggests summer days, wind chimes and bittersweet romance. Harris, who wrote the song three years ago, shared it with Jones after they met in Texas and started playing the club scene here. Harris performed on the demos that landed Jones her record deal with Blue Note.

"I think I can say that everybody involved thought that if it sold 100,000 records that would be great," Harris said. "Come Away With Me" has now sold more than 6 million copies worldwide. The sales and Grammy success recall that of Alicia Keys, another young piano-playing songwriter who, as it turned out, presented Jones with her trophy for best new artist.

Mardin, the producer, has guided famous voices such as Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin and Bette Midler. "She is right up there with them," Mardin said backstage. Mardin, who said he hopes to work with Jones on a follow-up effort, called her "a sincere artist" in the mold of Willie Nelson or John Prine.

Springsteen tied with the Dixie Chicks for the second most wins, with three each. The female trio was nominated in the best album category for the second time in three years and has become one their genre's most consistent favorites among the academy's 13,000 voters.

Other multiple winners included Eminem, Coldplay, India.Arie and Nelly. All told, the academy gives out awards in 104 categories.

The show broke with tradition in that it was the first Grammys without a single formal host. Instead, famous faces associated with New York, such as Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Willem Dafoe and Ed Bradley, took turns. The crowd at Madison Square Garden made it clear their heart was with Springsteen by cheering "Bruuuce!" when his nominations were read aloud or when he took the stage twice to perform. Grammy officials had wanted to shift last year's gala to the East Coast as a gesture of support following the destruction of the World Trade Center but could not for logistical reasons.

There was some expectation that artists might use stage time to talk about the situation in Iraq -- many artists have trumpeted their views in interviews and advertisements -- but other than fleeting, vague comments by Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit and Bonnie Raitt, there was no politics in the music mix. Grammy officials denied the whispers backstage that presenters had been specifically asked not to drift into geopolitical areas. Some artists said they were instructed only to be brief. Others talked about war backstage off camera.

"It's tough to keep your lip buttoned at this time," said Art Garfunkel, who said he wasn't sure it was appropriate to bring politics into the Grammy Awards ceremony. He and old partner Paul Simon were given a career achievement award. The shouts backstage, however, were about the night's sensation.

"She is an amazing talent," country singer Faith Hill said of Jones, adding that the newcomer's CD has been dominating her stereo for weeks. "It's in my house, it's in my car, it's in my truck...."

Other young singer-songwriters, such as John Mayer and Avril Lavigne, had memorable stage turns, and Mayer won in the pop male performance, but Mayer said backstage that only Jones so far has been able to "make an album that people will remember in 20 years."

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