Rickie Lee Jones: Jazzing It Up (Touring This Week And Appearing At Bluesfest)

Rickie Lee Jones. Photo by Aston Morgan.

By Brian Wise.

Last year when we spoke to Rickie Lee Jones about her beautiful Russ Titelman produced jazz album Pieces of Treasure she wasn’t feeling embraced by the larger jazz community. Festival and club bookings, especially jazz ones, didn’t seem to be rolling in and she wasn’t feeling the love.

While Jones did go back to Los Angeles to play the famous Troubadour she notes that it was “not the club it was; it doesn’t even have seats anymore!”

A lot can happen in a year. A 2024 Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Pop Vocal album – 44 years after her first of two wins – for one thing! This year, Jones is bubbling enthusiasm and her voice reflects a lot of the bon temps roulez spirit that you find everywhere in the city of New Orleans, where she has lived for over a decade.

Pieces of Treasure is Jones’ 14th studio album in an extraordinary career that has seen her not only pen some unforgettable songs – including what has become embraced as almost our own national anthem ‘Horses’ – but also produce albums as adventurous in their concept, production and instrumentation as some of Joni Mitchell’s work.

There are also previous albums of delightful and revealing interpretations, such as Kicks in 2019, It’s Like This (2000) and Pop Popin 1991, with their stellar cast of musicians. (Jones also released a great rendition of ‘Friday On My Mind’ as an EP track in 1989.Maybe someone can request it on our forthcoming tour here).

“All those outside disappointments didn’t matter at all,” says Jones when we meet on Zoom, “because on stage the music was the best I’ve ever had. Maybe the first tour was, but it’s hard to say. I was so intoxicated from being on stage, but it was such an incredible music that we played that it didn’t matter if anything was going off behind the scenes. This music was so beautiful that I walked off stage every night going, ‘I’m so happy to still be working’. That’s the truth. That’s the amazing thing.”

“As wonderful as it is to win,” she says of the fact that her latest album was nominated in Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album category (Laufey’s Bewitched won), “getting nominated has been so wonderful and seeing people feel so glad on my behalf. I think Russ Titelman did such an amazing job with this record that he definitely deserved a nomination as well. So, I’m going to carry this nomination for both of us.”

“It’s been happy and fun,” she enthuses from her home in New Orleans, just outside the French Quarter. It is almost like a dark cloud has lifted from Jones since the last time we spoke. Then she was worried about the success of her album, having put so much work into it and garnered such positive reviews. Her amazing memoir, Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of An American Troubadour, had also been recently published and she had been busy talking about that. It was serious stuff.

Now, Jones is excited about the superb ensemble she is bringing to Australia. Ben Rosenblum is on electric piano and accordion. (“He’s young and very extraordinary. He’s got a lot of heart”). Mike Dillon, who she has been working with for the past seven years is on percussion. Kai Welch, from Nashville, is on guitar (“He’s got a little bit of that strong folk-rock thing”). Adding to the excitement Jones adds that she might also be able to bring singer Petra Haden, one of the daughters of the great Charlie Haden (“An incredible singer, violinist, and nice to be with”). Haden has worked a lot with guitarist Bill Frisell. Jones has been getting rave reviews for her shows highlighting the latest album, so we are in for something special. “I’ll mix it up,” says Jones when I ask her about the probable set lists for the Australian shows.

Jones’ musical taste is what might be called catholic. Just look at some of the songwriters she has previously chosen to interpret: John Lennon, Becker & Fagen, Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John & Bernie Taupin and more. On the other hand, she has delved back into the great American songbook, occasionally on earlier albums but in a concentrated fashion for Pieces of Treasure.

As we have spoken about previously, Jones and Russ Titelman chose songs such as ‘Just In Time’, ‘Nature Boy’, ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’, ‘On The Sunny Side of The Street’, ‘It’s All In The Game’, ‘One For My baby (and One More For The Road)’ and more. No matter how young you are it would have been hard to have avoided at least a few of these classics. But where did Jones first hear the songs?

“Well, a lot of ’em come from my dad,” she admits. It is something with which many of us can probably identify. “I probably heard him around the house but he sat down and taught me a few of ’em when I was eight or nine. What would that be like? ‘Sunnyside Of The Street’ and ‘Grab Your Coat And Get Your Hat.’ Actually, I have a recording of him and my Uncle Bob playing that song! It occurred to me just this week that I should put that on the internet so people can hear it. So, that’s a really old one in the family. I heard ‘Just In Time’ from The Rat Pack guys, maybe Frank [Sinatra]. So, it’s a mix of when I was a teenager or from my dad or one or two that were new to me.”

I imagine that Jones might have also incorporated some of these songs into her sets when she first started playing coffee houses in Los Angeles. What was she playing then?

“If it was a solo gig, no,” she replies. “I just didn’t know how to play jazz. I learned to play a couple of Dan Hicks songs and he would’ve been a great teacher of how to play jazz guitar, rhythm jazz guitar. But I didn’t have any experience with chords and how to do substitute chords or anything like that. But if I was sitting in with a band like at the Comeback Inn in Venice Beach or something like that, then I would’ve sung ‘My Funny Valentine’ or ‘Since I Fell For You’ or even ‘Lush Life’.”

Those are songs that come from an era of great songwriting. Does Jones think that type of songwriting exists anymore? Or is it that we just don’t get to hear them?

“The real question you’re asking is, are people writing great songs?” responds Jones, “and that’s a question in any ilk. Is anybody writing a song we’ll remember or that we want to sing when we’re getting out of the shower? There was an innocence and a naivety to the music – 900,000 songs ago! They’ve written so many songs between then and now and those were the songs. There wasn’t a whole bunch of extraneous music. So, you have to dig through a lot of stuff to find it. I think I met one writer – Vilray Bolles [guitarist] – but I think there must be more people trying to write in that ilk.

“Remember though, it’s an evolution. So, the jazz music from 1964 is an evolution from the jazz music of 1948. So, it’s the newest hippest, slickest it can be, and it has those clothes on when it comes out. I’m talking about the song, not the singer. Now, people would be looking back and trying to imitate it and so it would always have a nostalgia about it. Things are of their time. But I don’t like nostalgia, artistic nostalgia.”

Which brings me to the question of whether Jones is writing new songs.  “I am writing such incredible material,” she enthuses. “Oh my God! Every day I write three more songs on my phone. I used to have a goal to learn improvisation in performance. So, the goal now is – it’s not to deconstruct but it’s to write things that aren’t limited to the two-verse bridge verse out. That’s not easy. That’s how I grew up. I’m a Beatle girl but I’ve been finding ways into what I guess might be feel more natural in theatre. So, I’ve been moving towards that. So, some of what I’ve written is traditional in a way but some of the stuff I’m coming up with is very new to me. But all of them are three quarters of a song. I’m very good with three quarters of a song. But bringing it in all the way? We’ll see what I can do.”

Also, is there a second volume of her memoir on the way?

“There is?” confirms Jones. “I was just working on a story today. The form of it is different. So, that was telling parts of many different episodes so that the book would keep moving and not go down any one rabbit hole. But there are particular stories I’d like to tell more of as well as some brand-new stories. So, this one I think would almost be more like short stories. But yes, I am excited to write more stories about my life.”

Rickie Lee Jones is appearing at Bluesfest and also performing in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney (Details here: Bluesfest Touring)