Alumni Profile: Lee Alexander '93
Just six years ago, bassist Lee Alexander was a scuffling jazz musician living in San Francisco, uncertain about his future. “My mom would send me $20 now and then to keep me in Ramen noodles,” he recalls. “She kept asking me if I was sure I wanted to do this.”
It’s funny how things change. Since leaving the Bay Area and moving to New York in 1999, Alexander has experienced a complete reversal of fortune. He became a key player in the phenomenal success of his girlfriend, Norah Jones, and received songwriting credits on four cuts on her blockbuster debut album, Come Away with Me; six on Feels Like Home; and seven on her new disc, Not Too Late. Thus far, Jones’s catalog has sold more than 32 million units and netted a slew of Grammys. The single “Sunrise,” which Alexander wrote, won Jones a 2004 Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. Now that Alexander is Jones’s cowriter, producer, and a member of her touring band, if he’s eating Ramen noodles, it’s probably because he likes the taste.
Alexander grew up in Ayer, Massachusetts, and played viola and guitar before focusing on the bass. A gifted graphic artist, he spent two years studying art in college before transferring to Berklee where he earned his Professional Music degree. “That major made a lot of sense to me,” he says. “I remember taking a great course with Rich Appleman called Survey of Bass Styles. Rich is a cool teacher, and he brought some famous bass players to class. I took music business courses too. We studied mechanical royalties, most-favored nation status, and other things. That stuff didn’t seem relevant to me when I was playing jazz clubs for $10 a night, but now I’ve found myself going back to my books again.”
After graduating, Alexander played with the touring company of the musical On the Town for six months before settling in San Francisco. There he played upright bass with jazz guitarist Adam Levy, songwriter Victoria Williams, and others. But after seven years, he opted for a change of scene.
“I felt I needed to go somewhere else,” he says. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I figured if I went to New York, I’d find out pretty quickly—it’s intense there. I needed to decide whether I wanted to play jazz or not.” Alexander ultimately decided that being a jazz musician wasn’t what he wanted to do.
Adam Levy had also moved to New York and met Norah Jones. Before long, Levy was playing a steady gig with her at the Washington Square Hotel. When she needed a bass player, Levy recommended Alexander. The nexus grew to include songwriter Jesse Harris, who had a publishing deal with Sony. Jones, Alexander, and Harris made a demo of Harris’s songs. “Everyone loved the demo,” says Alexander, “so we started playing gigs as a trio. Feeling inspired being around songwriters, Norah and I started writing around that time. The first songs I ever wrote are on Norah’s first album. That’s the most amazing stroke of luck ever!”
Alexander, Jones, and others recorded a demo for Blue Note Records that clicked, and the label signed Jones. After a false start with producer Craig Street, the label brought Arif Mardin on board, who guided the making of the now-legendary Come Away with Me album. “The genius of what Arif did wasn’t coming in and putting his sound or stamp on the project,” says Alexander. “He saw what magic was going on and let it happen. Unless he had to get in there, he didn’t. To me, that was amazing. He understood that we were going for a stripped-down sound and that the things that make Norah’s voice cool get buried if there’s too much going on. It’s all about the subtle things and how she phrases.”
Once the record came out, things unfolded rapidly for Jones, Alexander, and the group she has dubbed “The Handsome Band.” Radio hits, multiplatinum CD sales, and Grammy Awards followed. The band stayed on the road for nearly four years touring the States, South America, Europe, and Asia. Afterward they took a two-year hiatus.
“We all do different projects after a long tour,” Alexander says. “It’s kind of like cleansing the palette.” Jones and Alexander built a home studio with a Neve console, a 16-track, two-inch recorder, and a Pro Tools setup. Alexander has been learning engineering by recording his friends’ bands. He enlisted MP&E grad Tom Schick ’95 (who lives in the neighborhood) to engineer what became Jones’s Not Too Late CD while Alexander produced and played several instruments.
“When we started, we weren’t thinking we would make a record; we just wanted to document the new material in our own studio,” Alexander says. “We didn’t tell the label we were doing this. We wanted to mess around with the stuff to get used to the new studio. It sort of rolled into a record.”
Well, the new CD rolled into the top spot on the Billboard 200 chart almost as soon as it was released. And in April, Jones and the Handsome Band began touring again. After two months in the United States, the band crossed the pond for European dates.
Time has proven Alexander was correct to make that all-important move to New York. “If I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have figured out what I wanted to do,” he says. “Moving to New York was scary, but sometimes you have to put yourself in situations where you’re uncomfortable. It’s the only way you’re going to grow up.”