Rickie Lee Jones’ new album Pieces Of Treasure has been a long time coming. In a career that’s spanned more than four decades, the renowned singer-songwriter and 1989 Best Jazz Vocal Performance Grammy nominee devotes an entire album to the American Songbook for the first time.
Pieces Of Treasure finds Rickie Lee Jones reuniting with her lifelong friend, legendary producer Russ Titelman, co-producer of Jones’ star-making debut and Pirates. Throughout her career, the Grammy-winning singer songwriter has interpreted an extraordinarily wide range of songs and has recorded celebrated jazz-leaning albums including Girl At Her Volcano and Pop Pop, but until now she had never devoted an entire album to the American Songbook.
In a career that has spanned more than four decades, the renowned singer songwriter has interpreted an extraordinarily wide range of songs from writers and artists she loves, often collected on the same album. David Bowie himself publicly praised her take on “Rebel Rebel” from 1993’s Traffic From Paradise. She was nominated for a 1989 Best Jazz Vocal Performance Grammy for her rendition of “Autumn Leaves” from Rob Wasserman’s Duets album, and a year later she won in the same category for her duet with Dr. John of “Makin’ Whoopee.”
Pieces Of Treasure, the title a callback to Jones’ seminal album Pirates, is a reunion with legendary producer Russ Titelman. Titelman had followed Jones’ career over the many years since they’d last collaborated, faithfully going to hear her play whenever she came through New York City. They started having phone conversations and then meeting up for lunch, and each time Titleman would tell her the same thing: “We’re going to make a jazz record. We’re going to make a jazz record.”
“It was really hard working with me on Pirates,” says Jones. “But this new album is about two friends, just two friends. I think we renewed a powerful and respectful friendship.”
Recorded over five days at Sear Sound in midtown Manhattan, backed by the quartet of Rob Mounsey on piano, guitarist Russell Malone, bassist David Wong, and drummer Mark McLean, the music came easily. The result is intimate and elegantly simple, a deeply emotive set that feels as if it were pulled from Jones’ own life and experience as much as from the American Songbook. You can even hear a few sobs at the end of closing track, “It’s All In the Game.” They’re real and they’re from Jones, who was as moved by that moment in the vocal booth as any lucky listener undoubtedly will be. It’s clear Rickie Lee Jones was born to sing jazz.
Titelman was beguiled by Jones’ voice and songs from the moment he heard a demo of the young discovery. “Company,” the penultimate song on Rickie Lee Jones, had moved him to tears even in its demo form. That admiration has not diminished, as Titelman writes in the liner notes to Pieces Of Treasure: “This American Songbook recording shows Rickie’s artistry in full bloom. Her voice has always sounded a bit younger than it ought to (that may be a function of her ability to inhabit the character who is singing the song so masterfully that you believe every word) but on this recording the aging voice sounds even better to me than the youthful one. There’s a resonance and warmth in her lower register that wasn’t there before. I adore the young Rickie Lee but I love even more the Old Dame.”
The sessions centered on Jones’ voice and her interpretative, almost actorly, gifts. As Jones puts it, “I was and am confident that the voice is the first and last message of a song. Everyone else is there to help the singer convey the story of the song. Russ masterfully picked four players who are exceptional musicians and who also like to listen and respond. And that’s partly why this sparse thing sounds so totally complete, because everyone responds to each other and builds this perfect room.”
Jones’ vocal performances fill each track with pathos, longing, humor, romance. Pieces Of Treasure is brimming with insight, if not outright autobiography. She is telling a story, playing a part, but the boundaries between artist and character continually blur until all you can hear is her emotional truth. Creating this work with a producer who was with her during the most turbulent and triumphant period of her career adds to its power. These two survivors, these two friends, have returned to where they started off together - making magic in a studio.
Rickie Lee Jones’ recordings, starting with the hit “Chuck E.’s In Love,” have all been like chapters in an evolving life story. Jones told a lot more of that tale, particularly those parts that predate her music career, in her acclaimed 2021 memoir, Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles Of An American Troubadour.