Rickie Lee Jones – Pieces of Treasure
(BMG Modern Recordings 5053887762. Album review by Richard Lee)
The American Songbook has long been mined by artists from across the spectrum. Four years after Rickie Lee Jones (aka The Duchess of Cool) came to fame in 1979 with her sassy jazz-inflected Chuck E’s In Love, Linda Ronstadt and Nelson Riddle gave the Songbook a popular leg-up, and since then, innumerable singers – not always with the greatest jazz chops – have attempted its heights. Jones though clearly demonstrated hers, especially in the 90s where she was Makin’ Whoopee with Dr. John, putting out the standards crammed Pop, Pop collection, and then It’s Like This – a particular favourite of mine – giving On The Street Where You Live and others from Carmichael, Gershwin, Duke & Gershwin the same kind of refreshment she endowed a slew of 20th century standards by Winwood, Gaye, Becker & Fagen and Lennon &McCartney.
This new collection stays firmly in the 30-year golden period before pop, though 1958’s Its’s All In The Game gets a rightful boost towards classic status, closing the album in a most dramatic way.
Before that, we get 9 songs all channelling the Duchess’s uniquely affecting drawl, her fondness for playing with a line’s rhythm and hanging thrillingly behind the beat. Given that the album was completed over 5 days, I sense these are one-, or possibly few-take recordings, capturing the singer’s delight. Little exclamations and breaths round off verses evoking her obvious pleasure in performing. You can hear her smile. Faux-naif? I think she’s pretty sure she knows what’s what, not least from the decisively provocative cover image: this album’s on her terms. But we also get a sense of what it takes out of you to tell these songs truthfully.
However much Mike Manieri’s masterful vibes introducing Just In Time might recall the opening tones of the TV satire Toast of London, the track is a serious statement of intent: you do know Ms Jones is here to extract the most from these pieces of gold. Her rhythm section is rock solid, and a few string arrangements notwithstanding, the album effectively creates an intimate club setting. Guitarist Russell Malone contributes a perfectly honed solo to a similarly exuberant There Will Never Be Another You but there’s an arresting change of gear as Ara Dinkjian’s oud and a brief muezzin-like vocal figure from Jones preface a Nature Boy that seems truer to its countercultural roots than most. It seems in keeping with Jones’ liner notes that tell us about “golden suns and circles met” and being “younger now than I was last winter”. As that may be… the natural loucheness in her voice on One For My Baby brings us firmly back to the club, while They Can’t Take That Away From Me swings even more joyfully, her finger-clicks and take-you-to-the-edge phrasing seeing her soar. Scott Robinson’s baritone does too; I’d have liked more sax and swing in this, and in more songs, but I suspect this is Jones reuniting with her original producer Russ Titelman, both ensuring each tune has a distinctive sound. So, indeed does the rest of the album. Jones seems given to rounding off albums with a slow number and here the second half of this all-too short album is a set of five ballads. It’s no less bold than Joni Mitchell’s relatively stately and more expansive Both Sides Now (decidedly not a club set) and actually works quite well as a brief autumn-of-my-life song-cycle.
Returning to work with the producer that set Jones on her career 40 years ago has the ring of reconciliation that soaks through these songs, and there’s undoubtedly a chemistry. Titelman’s enthusiasm for his muse’s skills in the field (“she was a be-bopper, a real jazz singer…her aging voice sounds even better than the youthful one”) is exemplified in a soulfully sad All The Way, where we get to imagine Ms Jones as Miss Dubois, her voice just on the edge, relying on the kindness of strangers. A similarly doleful Here’s That Rainy Day also teeters between smiles and tears but she’s realistic about loss now. September Song makes the perfect reflective segue, the “resonance and warmth in her register that wasn’t there before” that Titelman notes gets rather beautifully foregrounded in his production. More smiles than tears, her drawn-out vowels in the final verse and the little reflective laugh make for perfect Weill, and into a supremely gorgeous On The Sunny Side Of The Street. The mood has lifted, with nothing more than (I assume) Jon Herington’s delicately picked acoustic guitar for Jones to improvise with, ending on a joyfully long and lilting note. And so it ends with It’s All In The Game which shouldn’t really be the high point among these wonderful Songbook classics, but turns out to earn its place through Rob Mouncey’s gentle chords, sparse strings and something like a whole life’s worth of range in Jones’ voice. The coda of sobs and intakes have replaced the joyful exclamations at the start of the record, but you certainly feel there’s a life’s work behind her telling of these songs. Another set would be most welcome.
A toast, from London, to the Duchess of Cool.
TRACK LISTING AND RECORDING DETAILS
1. Just in Time (Jule Styne, Betty Comden, Adolph Green)
2. There Will Never Be Another You (Harry Warren, Mack Gordon)
3. Nature Boy (Eden Ahbez)
4. One for My Baby (Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer)
5. They Can’t Take That Away from Me (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin)
6. All the Way (Jimmy Van Heusen, Sammy Cahn)
7. Here’s That Rainy Day (Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Burke)
8. September Song (Kurt Weill, Maxwell Anderson)
9. On the Sunny Side of the Street (Jimmy McHugh, Dorothy Fields)
10. It’s All in the Game (Charles G. Dawes, Carl Sigman)
Recorded at Sear Sound Manhattan, produced by Russ Titelman
Rob Mounsey piano; Russell Malone guitar; David Wong bass; Mark McLean drums; Mike Mainieri Mike Dillon vibes; Jon Herington acoustic guitar; Scott Robinson baritone & alto + trumpet; Ryan Roberts oboe; Ara Dinkijian oud; Rickie Lee Jones vocal & horn arrangements; Gil Goldstein string arrangements.
LINK: Buy Pieces of Treasure
Categories: Album review, Reviews
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