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Can spring really hang you up the most? Norah Jones made the case, back when

Norah Jones
Joanne Savio
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Norah Jones was the furthest thing from a multiplatinum-selling, multiple Grammy-winning recording artist when she rolled tape on a version of “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.” Seated at a piano in her high school band room in Dallas, Jones gave the song a soft, rueful treatment, with the dawning resolution of an interior monologue. Her voice was not yet a known entity, but she knew just what to do with it.

The tape came with her when she moved to New York City in 1999, subletting an apartment (fittingly enough) on Jones Street. And a year later, when Jones found herself in a meeting with Bruce Lundvall at Blue Note Records, that intimate demo of “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” was one of three songs that she played him. As of today, it’s out in the world, as the second single from a forthcoming 20th anniversary edition of Jones’ breakthrough Blue Note debut, Come Away With Me.

Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most (Demo)

“It seemed to impress Bruce that I knew the old standards,” Jones recalls in her liner notes to Come Away With Me: 20th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition, which Blue Note / UMe will release on April 29. “He listened quietly with his eyes closed.”

Lundvall was a discerning listener and a keen observer of the scene, and he had reason to take notice in Jones’ choice of material. “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” was a creation of lyricist Fran Landesman and composer Tommy Wolf, first published in 1955 and recorded that year by Jackie Cain and Roy Kral.

In his 2012 book The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire, Ted Gioia explains that the song “began in response to a peculiar challenge Landesman had set herself: to restate, in the hip lingo of a jazz musician, the sentiments T.S. Eliot expressed in the opening line to his poem ‘The Waste Land.’ That phrase (‘April is the cruelest month…’) was transformed into ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.’ Wolf constructed a poignant melody that gave emotional depth to Landesman’s arch lyrics.”

The song did indeed became a standard, recorded by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Carmen McRae to Rickie Lee Jones. Still, it wasn’t on the short list of songs you’d expect to hear from a singer in her early 20s at the turn of this century — certainly not at a pitch meeting. But what set Jones apart, surely, was not just the selection but the surefootedness: she sounds completely at home, befitting a budding jazz savant who’d spent countless hours of her youth glued to Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz. (Jones and McPartland performed the song together on at least one occasion, in 2003.)

The deluxe edition of Come Away With Me sheds light on everything that happened after that fateful meeting with Lundvall: a budget to produce a studio demo, followed by sessions produced by Craig Street, and finally the Arif Marden sessions we all know.

As for “Spring,” it’s a testament to Jones’ early talent that such a no-frills recording would feel so full. And there’s surely something resonant about lyrics that hail a season of new growth with a show of ambivalence — perfect foreshadowing for the bittersweet hush of Come Away with Me, and a musical identity that has always sought a balance between shadow and light.

Come Away With Me: 20th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition will be released on Blue Note/UMe on April 29; preorder here.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.