AMOS LEE at the Drake Hotel (1150 Queen West), tonight (Thursday, February 10), 7:30 pm. Sold out. www.amoslee.com. Rating: NNNNN
Considering the phenomenal success that Blue Note is having with soft-sell coffeehouse chanteuse Norah Jones, it was inevitable that they'd try using what they've learned in order to repeat it.
Only instead of a photogenic young woman piano player, this time it's Philadelphia singer/songwriter Amos Lee, a 27-year-old former elementary school teacher who sounds like a genetically engineered hybrid of John Mayer and Jeff Buckley - but more chilled out.
To help ensure that Lee's self-titled debut album stuck closely to the formula of innocuous yet romantically suggestive ballads set to laid-back grooves designed to maximize double-income-couple appeal, Jones bassist Lee Alexander was brought in to produce the sessions. Jones's guitarist, Toronto's Kevin Breit, lays down his typically tasteful licks, and Jones herself softly coos backing vocals and adds some warm Fender Rhodes sweetening to the mix.
Of course, the recording of the album is just a small part of the grand scheme that began when Blue Note offered to manufacture Lee's "indie" EP. It sold briskly at shows where Lee opened for Jones on the North American and European dates of her last tour. What better way to introduce the target audience to the label's new product line?
"Blue Note seemed like the right choice because they operate with some musical integrity," says Lee. "Although, because I'm not a jazz artist, I didn't really understand how or where I would fit in at the label."
Of course, Lee fits perfectly in the soft-touch section of Blue Note's Norah Jones department, which will likely soon be moved to the Norah Jones wing of the label's Norah Jones shrine that they're no doubt planning right now so that employees can properly worship their golden goddess.
When pressed, Lee admits that he does share a certain low-key sonic sensibility with Jones.
"There are definitely some similarities, but my stuff isn't based in jazz. Actually, I didn't go to school for music of any kind and barely took guitar lessons."
Growing up, he was mostly into hiphop. He didn't really listen to anything recorded before 1985 until he went to the University of South Carolina and got a part-time job at a jazz record shop.
"That's where I first heard Donny Hathaway's Live album, which really hit me hard. I'd listened to some R&B, but it was the digitally manufactured stuff. That Donny Hathaway record sounded so organic and real. From there I got into Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers, as well as the music of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young - especially the Harvest album, it's perfect from beginning to end."
You can clearly hear Young's influence on a song like Lee's Seen It All Before, which is about as close to Young's Helpless in structure and melody as he could get without inviting a copyright lawsuit.
Right now, Lee has more pressing matters on his mind, namely a high-profile appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman scheduled for March 3, perfectly timed to coincide with his album's street date.
That will neatly set up his U.S. tour dates with Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard. Lee says he doesn't know how he scored a career-making road trip with his Bobness. But doubtless the fact that Lee is now represented by Jeff Kramer at OK Management - who besides Dylan also has Paul Simon as a client - probably had something to do with his addition to the bill.
When pressed about precisely when Kramer came into the the picture and what his role has been in putting the pieces in place, Lee seems strangely vague.
"Jeff is working on my management team. He's always just sorta been around. The picture is always semi-clear to me. I never really know what's going on."