All that jazz
An American standard sings American Standards. Sylvie Simmons listens.
Rickie Lee Jones ★★★★ Pieces Of Treasure BMG MODERN. CD/DL/LP
IF YOU GOOGLE “female jazz singers” you won’t find Rickie Lee Jones. She tried it and came up blank, but she considers herself a jazz singer. She grew up on jazz and the American Standards – her grandparents were in vaudeville; her dad played jazz – and when she first went on-stage in LA in the ’70s it was largely jazz ballads she sang. The songs on her first album, Rickie Lee Jones (1979), were also, in her mind, rooted in jazz. The album was a huge hit and won her the Best New Artist Grammy. She was also nominated for Best Vocal Performance
– but for pop, not jazz. The cool singer with the red beret and inter-genre songs was being reshaped into the poster girl for commercially successful boho rock.
There’s a reason for bringing up Jones’s past: she’s been revisiting it a lot lately, with her 2021 memoir Last Chance Texaco, then with the TV screenplay she’s writing, based on her early career. She was thinking about recording an album with Russ Titelman, who produced her first album and the follow-up Pirates (1981), widely considered her master work and also the inspiration for this album’s title. But there’s no new Jones originals on Pieces Of Treasure.
It’s a covers album of jazz songs from the Great American Songbook. She’d had enough of being ignored by the jazz world; it was time, she said, to make her mark.
There are 10 songs here, most of them slow, with a smoky nightclub intimacy that makes it a great late-night album. Titelman’s production is spot-on. So are the musicians: the vibraphone solo that opens Just In Time; the perfectly simple piano and lovely strings on All The Way; the evocative Spanish guitar at the start of Nature Boy, one of her dad’s favourites; the bass and finger-popping on the cheeriest cut, They Can’t Take That Away From Me. Jones’s voice is lovely throughout, with a big range as well as personality. It’s high and youthful on a surprisingly slow, pensive Sunny Side Of The Street; deeper, more mature on Here’s That Rainy Day; and on September Song it’s both, a dash of Marianne Faithfull at the beginning and Billie Holiday later on.
You get the impression of someone looking back over a distant past, but also of a young girl trying on old clothes she found rummaging through her parents’ wardrobe. The cover photo seems to favour the latter: an unused pic from the first photo session she ever did, wearing California Highway Patrol sunglasses and 1940s bathing suit. She was the Duchess of Coolsville, and as this album shows, still is.