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Rickie Lee Jones and Russ Titelman reunite on a new album of songbook standards.
Rickie Lee Jones has dipped into the Great American Songbook on several occasions with sterling results. She earned a Grammy nomination for her performance of “Autumn Leaves” alongside bassist Rob Wasserman and notched a Grammy win for her duet with Dr. John on “Makin’ Whoopee.” And while she’s imparted deeply ingrained jazz sensibilities on her own recordings since her self-titled 1980 debut album, she’s just now getting around to recording an entire album of standards.
Pieces of Treasure (BMG Modern), her latest release, also marks her reunion with veteran producer Russ Titelman, who co-produced Jones’ first two Warner Bros. albums with Lenny Waronker. Jones discussed her new album with JAZZIZ publisher Michael Fagien. About midway through, Titelman joined the conversation, resulting in a freewheeling discussion about the pair’s long and affectionate relationship, with jazz and with one another. - Michael Fagien
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Michael: Welcome, Rickie Lee Jones. I’m a huge fan. You’re an inspiration for me. One of the reasons I got into this business was your your debut album. I think you were around 25 years old when that came out.
Michael: Uh, 24. And I was inspired because there was kind of a zeitgeist going on back then where they had these recording and performing artists that seemed to gravitate to some of these wonderful jazz musicians that were performing on those records. And it created a certain sound and a genre that has been imitated, but yet to be replicated. It was a great time for music, and your debut album was certainly on the top of my list. Come full circle with your latest album. It’s almost back to the future. There’s a track on the debut album called “Company.” And when I first listened to it, I wasn’t thinking of you as a jazz singer. But when I heard that song, it was undeniable that you were a jazz singer.
And the journey that you’ve taken since then has been a tortuous one where you’ve gone so many different places. But now you’re back to that song and the beauty of the song.
Rickie: [Russ Titelman] said this to me last year, when we reunited and rekindled our friendship. He said, “When I first heard ‘Company,’ it reminded me of Roberta Flack.” And that was one of the most insightful things anybody has ever said to me, because I’ve always considered myself a fine singer. And my first love is jazz, but I can sing anything because I’m a singer, right? But there’s a kind of singing that I don’t do, and it’s the very trained oversung thing that a lot of people love, but I just don’t dig it. And so when I hear Roberta Flack, I hear a woman who’s a singer — and she definitely had a teacher — but the voice that I hear is not trained.
It’s right from the source of her intention. And sometimes when people have too many teachers, it impedes that natural thing. So I had an untrained voice, but I understood what [Russ] was saying when he said you are like Roberta Flack. Because when Roberta Flack sang, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” it was so simple and unaffected. Not even vibrato, just pow. I went, OK! Russ “got me” on a level that I never heard anybody get me. And that was why I knew I was in the hands of somebody, not only so respectful, but insightful. And it’s hard to explain what a producer does, but they take you by that invisible world of intention to the place you couldn’t go on your own. Because as you said, I’ve done a lot of different things on my own and with a few producers, but this kind of love takes you to some other place entirely.
So “Company” was the only song of that ilk. When I was writing with my co-writer there, Alfred Johnson, I was thinking I might have a career as a songwriter. I didn’t know that I’d get a big break and get to be a singer. So I wrote that with Frank Sinatra in mind. And when I met [co-producers] Lenny [Waronker] and Russ and the president of Warner Bros. Mo Austin, they actually flew to the desert and took that song to Frank Sinatra, and they came back and said, “You know, he just can’t sing that stuff anymore, because that’s a really hard song to sing.” So there is something full circle. It’s inexplicable though, isn’t it? I don’t know how or why, but I can feel that at last. I’ve landed again. I’m not gonna say more than that because words don’t explain it, but you can feel it, right?
Michael: Yeah, you could definitely feel it. So the one thing that was obvious to me as a listener and a fan is this concept of a conversation. I think one of the things that makes this album and many of your albums special is that I feel like you’re singing to me, you’re talking to me, and also having a conversation with the other musicians. And I noticed in some of your notes, you echoed that sentiment. And, you know, for example, the thing that completely mesmerized me when I just started listening to your new record was Mike Mainieri’s vibes. And you hear that vibe, and it’s a conversation between you and Mike. He’s not speaking in words. You are, but you’re clearly understanding each other. Tell me how that works.
Rickie: Well, he’s anticipating a syncopated thing that’s coming, and he plays it before it gets there. This is the closest, [laughs] I think a singer and a player have ever been. Everything I’m gonna do is set up by Mike. And then he also responds to it after the fact. And he’s got his own joyful character that he brought, as if he went, “This a little fun, sensual thing she’s gonna do. I’m gonna introduce her now, here she comes.” And it kind of reminded me of The Jetsons, forgive me for that, but it reminded me of this happy time when we were kids — or a soap commercial or something full of bright, um, what are those called? Kid colors, primary colors. So, yeah, that’s just my goofy mind.
Michael: With all the musicians on the record, there’s this conversation. And the thing that I thought was really wonderful, you kind of bring us back a few decades, maybe 50 years, where they’re shorter songs. They’re incredibly meaningful. I was trying to think of a word to describe this album — I actually don’t think I came up with this word — but it’s, it’s your “audiobiography.” It’s a musical version of things that obviously you feel very passionate about, that you’ve learned through life, and you express them in song.
Most of us who have been studying music, listening to music, have heard most of, if not all of these songs. But you bring new meaning to them as you breathe your life into them, and you listen to them differently, and you listen to the words differently, even though they were written by the same writer. There’s something about the way you articulate it. How can you explain that?
Rickie: You know, it’s better for people who explain things to explain it, but I know that whenever I sing any song, it’s almost like it’s a room. I see it intact, all that are living in it, who built it, where it came from. So when I step into it, I’m part of a story that’s already existed. I don’t think most singers do this, but this is my relationship with anything that I sing — it just starts to build a room. So every song I sing, I have an imaginary world, a long history that is either an imaginary history or a real one with this song, like “Sunny Side of the Street” or something. So that’s how I sing a song, and inexplicably, that’s what you hear. It’s just an unimpeded emotional relationship. I know I’m talking to an audience, but I’m also talking to the imaginary person that the writer puts there in front of me.
“Just in time, I found you just in time.” Well, that imaginary person is there for anybody who sings the song, but not everybody envisions him or her and makes him as real as possible. In my case, you know, I’m 68 years old, so you better believe it’s “just in time” and it’s kind of funny. And all the things that I want to bring at my age to that song. So it’s a complex thing, and I’m glad that it’s still working. But I guess that’s the way I sing. I did wanna comment on the two-minute songs, on the three-minute songs. So, you know, when you go here, jazz, everybody takes a solo [laughs]. Every single verse, somebody else takes a solo. And that was really interesting in 1940, you know, when you had extraordinary … not that there aren’t great musicians now, but it was a new idea.
And it is not a new idea today. I think when a soloist plays, he has to be as compelling as the singer. He has to be telling a story as compelling as what just caught your attention. Otherwise, there’s just no reason to put a solo in there. So these are short songs, and I made the choice not to sing ’em again. I just went, “Here is what the writer had to say, we’re gonna say it.” We’re out once or twice, we came back around to the refrain. And you know, we had to let Mike play [laughs]. But I just didn’t wanna do that thing. I did an interesting thing, I think, with “Here’s That Rainy Day,” where I brought the thing back in and then sang the end of the phrase, then let the player play, and then sang the end of the phrase and brought it back in.
I don’t like to tell too many secrets, but we recorded the tracks and left space in two of ’em for possible solos. But when we got there to put solos in, it was so false. I mean, they’re great players, but they had nothing to do with the energy of the room that day. It’s not that we were attached to it as it was. You could tell the solo has nothing to do with it. What happens is people come in and they go, “I love it when I play this thing. I’m gonna play this thing.” And he goes, [scats] blah, blah, blah. But that has nothing to do with the song [laughs].
So it’s very hard to find. Even if you do find somebody who listens and goes, “Oh, this solo should only be four notes,” and that’s all they played. It just didn’t work ’cause it wasn’t live. So we end up with long spaces that have no solo, and it’s wonderful. It’s just this space. It just keeps this sensual vibe between everybody. So yeah, the two-minute thing was purposeful. Three minutes. And so consequently, the overall length of the record is a little shorter, but it’s a record of 10 songs, as it should be.
Michael: I wanted to comment on something that I’ve noticed over the years with singers that we loved in their early years. It’s not like we fall out of love with their singing, but, I guess to sugarcoat it, some singers we wish they stopped singing because we want to remember them when they were great. You, on the other hand, your singing voice has evolved. When I first listened to your voice, you had an almost childlike innocence. We knew that you were this tough kid, but you had this innocent voice, which was quite a paradox. Now you’re older, your voice is older, but you still maintain that childlike quality in some way, and it comes through in the music and it actually sounds better. And I think Russ picked up on that immediately and put that out front.
Rickie: Well, to be honest, I wasn’t sure what was gonna happen. You know, I’ve been working live for many years, and I noticed about three years ago that the top of the range was a struggle, and then the mid-high was dissolving, and I was going, “Oh, how will I ever sing jazz again?” But what happened was I began to practice [laugh], which I never had to do before. So I began to, you know, work that muscle and identify where it struggles and find another way around it. And in this jazz record, the minute that I started singing, it seemed that I brought all knowledge to bear to make it easy. And, you know, it sounds really easy, but I was working [laughs] hard to make it easy and hit all the notes and not slide up to the notes and make it just as strong as it could be.
Michael: And you did something that I think all great recording and performing artists do, and that is, you make it look easy. Yet if you really understand music, you understand how hard it is to get there.
Going back to your debut album, out of the box you became really kind of a music icon. That had to have some serious consequences for you. At 24 years old, you’re thrust onto the scene, you’re at this record company at what I believe was their heyday. When, when Mo and Lenny and Russ were doing their thing back at Warner Bros., it never was better than that. And it’s never been better since. What was it like to be this young woman on this label? Did you ever feel, as a young artist, that these are just a bunch of record company guys trying to tell me what to do? Or did you have faith back then because of the way the business was so much different then than it is now?
Rickie: I hadn’t really assessed anything business. You know, I thought Rolling Stone was kind of snobby, but that was as far into that water that I put my toes. So then I was signed by a record company with people whose names I knew because of their association with my idols, like Randy Newman. When they embraced me, I found a family. So I never saw them as record company guys. I saw them as an extension of my own family. I would go to Warner Bros. every day and walk around and say hello to everybody. I had nothing else to do. And that’s probably the best thing an artist could do. And I’d go sit in Lenny’s office or Mo’s office, just sit to wait to talk to them because I guess I didn’t have much of a [family] — you know, I’d left my mother up in Washington.
So they became my family until the end, which happened after [vice president of A&R and publicity] Bob Regehr died. And that was so emotional for me and overwhelming. And Lenny and Russ had moved on. They didn’t wanna produce my next record, for whatever reason. Then I knew I was done there. But until that happened, they were my family. And never ever did they try to interfere with my vision. All they wanted to do was bring it, bring whatever it was I wanted to do to the vinyl.
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Michael: Don’t take this the wrong way, but do you think that you are an easier person today than you were back in the early days?
Rickie: In every way. Well, there’s two people: There’s the little girl I was before I was signed [laughs], and then the woman I became right after I was signed. The girl I was before really wanted to succeed. But I must have been charming enough to bring people to me to help me do that after I was signed. And vulnerable and innocent. But after I was signed, so much power, and to be clear, drugs and the loss of my love affair, and then eventually the loss of my Warner’s family made me very … not just cranky, but what’s the word? You know, self-important. I had all the things you hope a person doesn’t become when they have wealth and fame. Remember when Kanye West jumped on the stage and said that girl [Taylor Swift] couldn’t have her Grammy? I was just that far from that guy.
Wow. I was so important that everybody wants to know what I have to say [laughs]. I know what’s best for everybody. Well, I didn’t jump on any stages, but when he did that, I went, “Oh my God, I know that guy.” I’m kind of kind now and I recognize the other in the room. That took a long time to get there because I was so full of my own sorrow and pain and then importance. But in the interior thing, just a lot of, you know, old, old childhood stuff in there. So that took a long time before it’s just as simple as saying, “I’m done with that.”
It takes years to get there, but once you do that, you can really have a lot of power. And that power goes into your work because you’re always aiming at the other. When I’m singing, I guess all those things come into play. You know, I’m thinking only of myself because I’m thinking of the sound of my voice. And now I have to control every little thing I’m thinking of in the text of the song. I’m thinking of the drummer, how sweet he is, listen to what he is trying to do. I’m thinking of everything until it’s just a blank canvas. And it’s a mystical thing. But, for whatever reason, if kindness isn’t part of your vocabulary, compassion, well, we just won’t hear it in what you’re singing. And and that’s OK. But that’s what you’re hearing. You’re hearing a lot of, I think, happiness, a lot of very personal … I feel something very, very personal.
[At this point, Russ Titelman joins the conversation.]
Michael: Well, Rickie and I are having a wonderful conversation, and we’ve talked about you. You guys are truly friends, you’re not just collaborators. How does that work? You know, they always say, don’t go into business with friends. But you seem to do it well.
Russ Titelman: Well, I think it speaks for itself. We’ve known each other for so long and we stayed friends, even when there were long periods of not communicating. But when we do, it’s like family, it’s like getting back together with your closest person.
Rickie: Russ and I, we made these two records [Rickie Lee Jones and Pirates] that were beautiful records and important at the time. Pirates was almost like going into an archeological dig of my emotions and coming back alive again. So I think when you’ve done something like that together, there’s a bond, there’s a familiarity that that never goes away. And especially if Russ gets to see that 20 years later, I’ve found my way out of the dark hole. And, you know, he’s known lots of musicians. I’m certainly not the worst of anybody he’s known …
Russ: [Laughs] Come on. But also, in the ’90s, we did a live record together [Naked Songs: Live and Acoustic] and that’s when it was just the two of us doing it. And Rickie called me and asked me to help her do it. She had recorded all this stuff, and she sent it to me, and I listened to it, and I said, “OK, we don’t have ‘We Belong Together.’ We don’t have a ‘Chuck E.’s in Love.’ So you have to do another show or two, and and we’ll get those things.” And that’s exactly what we did. You went to San Francisco somewhere and did two shows, and we got those pieces, and then we mixed it. It was really an easy thing.
I think there was one thing you did overdubs on, not much, you know? And that was a great experience for us. It was simple. And because of the nature of it, it was just you on either guitar or a piano. Except for the one thing with Rob [Wasserman], the bass thing. But I think that was kind of a little turning point that allowed us to work together.
Michael: Russ, you’ve produced some amazing pop records and yet you have this understanding of jazz and jazz musicians. Rickie and I were talking about this, that, back then, especially in the early days, there was this thing going on with these great jazz musicians from producers who understood what those musicians could bring to the table. And you did it on this new record, although the conversation is so much more intimate. Where did that come from?
Russ: Well, it came from my parents who had the best taste in music. They weren’t musicians. My mother could read and play piano. We had the fireside folksong book, all the Commies had it [laughs]. And it had folksongs and political songs. “Freiheit,” this German anti-war, World War I song, and “Los Cuatro Generales,” which was a Spanish Civil War song. And the arrangements were nice, so she could read and play and we’d stand around and sing those songs. But their record collection was Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry James, Dinah Shore, The Almanac Singers, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, The Weavers, uh, the Red Army Choir. My father’s favorite piece of music was Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. And so that music was going in the house all the time. And my mother loved Louis Jordan.
And Lead Belly. The most important thing to me was Lead Belly. I’d just sit and listen to that [record] over and over and over
Rickie: It’s so important to note that our generation, and a little bit after us, has such a diverse education because our parents bought jazz. But we’re hearing Black music and white music on the radio together, which hadn’t really happened before. We’re hearing soul and stuff. Russ has this folk Commie background, which I didn’t have, but when we come [together], we have such an education. And to market the record, it’s got to go in jazz or rock or pop. But that’s not the impetus that we come from. We just come from a love of music.
Russ: And the radio. I’m 10 years older than you, so when I was a kid, my older sister and all of her friends were listening to all the doo-wop records. So that was it for me, and then pop radio had anything that was good, that was selling. There was an R&B station, which I listened to as a kid all the time, KGFJ in L.A., you know, Sam Cooke, any hit doo-wop record, “Whispering Bells,” The Del Vikings and all these people. And then Dion comes, and all the rest of the other stuff. So that was what we grew up with and the stuff that we love. When you think about those records that were made back then, all of these musicians on those records were great jazz players. And, you know, these records just swung like crazy.
And I guess you know, on the first record, on the Rickie Lee Jones album, Red Callender plays the bass on “Easy Money.” Red Callender was Louis Armstrong’s bass player, when he was like a kid. And Mac Rebennack [Dr. John] is playing keyboards. Victor Feldman’s all over that record.
Michael: We were talking about Mike Mainieri and how much I love Mike, personally and professionally,
Russ: He’s just the greatest. When we got him, I was thinking to myself, this is like having Lionel Hampton on your record.
Michael: And I’ve noticed, Russ, for years you’ve worked with [pianist] Rob Mounsey, who I think is one of the most underrated musicians.
Russ: He’s one of the greatest musicians on Earth. And these guys see this, this was another very important component. We rehearsed for two or three days, just Rickie and Rob to get the keys, the tempos and also the working relationship. And I remember, he’d do things … all these guys, they play so great. And as soon as we start going, like, there’s a hole, and he starts doing something, and she says, “You know, you just gotta be careful in there. You gotta stay outta my way.” Really. So she let him know that this is what we have to do for me to be able to do what I do. So everybody has to listen and watch and really pay attention to every single thing and then play.
Rickie: So for it to be a conversation, and if they’re not listening, then I’m gonna have to come off of what they did, and that’s not where I was going. So, for me to be the leader and for it to be a conversation they have to set down [laughs] all their tricks and listen, and that’s what we got in this ensemble — great players who listened.
Russ: Well, it’s your whole approach, the whole understanding of what we were doing, and they got on the bus with us.
Michael: I also wanted to ask you about this beautiful, refreshing version of “Nature Boy,” and the use of the oud.
Russ: It was my idea to get the oud player. But once we got there, you know, he put his parts on the thing. It was [Rickie] who said, “Look, would you just play like for a minute? Just play some free stuff.” And that’s what opens the record. And then she put the choir on it, except it was the Moroccan choir on that one.
Michael: The thing for me as a listener that I love about this record is that these are shorter songs, and the, the total length of the album is short. It leaves you wanting more. And I think that’s what sometimes makes a really great record. When you get done with the album, you’re like, “I could listen to that again.”
Russ: I agree. It was a choice that we made, that we didn’t take a lot of repeats. A lot of people take repeats, you know, like all the way, boom, that’s it. You know, and then it’s over and [you’re at the album’s last track] “It’s All in the Game.” All of these things were so stripped down, and it allowed Rickie to do the thing that she does the best. I think that what we managed to do was to choose songs that allowed her to do the thing that she does on your own material, so the vocal performance on “Company” comes from another galaxy. It’s telling a story, but you get to that place in you that, I mean … I don’t know anyone else who does that.
Michael: I have a, a funny Rickie story. You may remember this, but back in the early ’90s, we featured Rickie on the cover of JAZZIZ Magazine. This was for the Pop Pop record. And so this is photographer Jeff Sedlik, and I know you’ve been shot by the greatest photographers in the world, Annie Leibowitz for Rolling Stone. Jeff, as you may know, he did that famous shot of Miles Davis with his finger to his lips. Jeff’s a wonderful L.A. photographer who’s been working with us for years. And he told me a story about you at this photo session, which really epitomized you as an artist full circle beyond music. Jeff is a very studied, very serious photographer. Usually, before he goes into a photo shoot, he’s drawn sketches, he’s figured out lighting, he’s got assistants, wardrobe, makeup, whatever, brings the whole entourage. And you came to the photo session and he starts telling you, “OK, so I want you to do this and this and this.” And you just looked at him and you said, “OK, let me tell you how this is gonna work. [laughs], I’m gonna do my thing. If you catch my thing during your thing, it’ll be great. If not, I don’t know what to tell you.” And you did your thing. And not only was this an absolutely stunning cover photo, but the inside photography was also brilliant.
Russ: [laughs] That’s exactly how we made this record, you know?
Rickie: “It’s All in the Game,” that’s a good one to use to illustrate this point. So “It’s All in the Game” is almost a dead song because it was done so definitively in the ’50s. And that’s what we think of [sings a snippet of the song]. But I [also] know Van Morrison’s version and he gets himself into a thing. So the lyric always seemed to me that it was a fatherly figure saying, “I know you’re [hurting], but hold on.” Right at the moment when you most cannot wait, you’re gonna fall at the door or cut your wrist, or you’re gonna take action. This thing is saying, “Don’t take action. Wait. And it will be beautiful. All you hope it will be.” [breaking up emotionally] I get so touched by the lyrics. So when we went to sing it, it wasn’t like I was having any broken heart thing, everything was OK. But I know how that feels. So I said, It has to be very, very slow. I want every word that we’re saying to be felt, so slow that the listener goes, “uh …” [laughs], very slow. Cause that’s the only way we’re gonna wring out the old version and make you surrender to what’s happening here. And for me, it was very moving.
Michael: On one of the songs on the record, I can hear you sniffle. And I was like, “This is real.” This is why it’s so much of a conversation. It’s hearing you as you, and that comes through in this record, from beginning to end.
Rickie: That happened on more than one song. It’s not sadness. It’s just such deep emotion that I’m going to tell you the story that many of the songs ended in me sobbing. I remember now. Yeah. It was a lot of work.
Russ: It was a lot of work. And I get asked about it now and I say it’s like working with like the greatest actor in the world. You know, she manages to get to go to that place, and then is able to express it.
Rickie: It is like acting.
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Michael: Russ, what do you like most about producing?
Russ: I love everything about it. You know, working with her is different than anybody else. Lenny used to say, the first thing is you have to be good editor and you have to be a great listener. And that I think is what happened with us on this record. I just know what you do. So it was my job to really listen and to be there with you while you were doing it, and often to just stay out of the way. And then I suppose we went down the road on a couple of songs that weren’t working. And because I’m the person who sits back and listens, and we gave them all a really good shot, I’d go, “You know, this isn’t working. Let’s go on to the next thing.” And we have enough trust with each other.
Rickie: We hit the vein so well that on some days, in that one week, we were recording three songs a day.
Russ: So we cut 15 songs in five days. Ten of them are on the record. And, and then we had the extra track.
Rickie: Yeah, yeah, yeah. “It Never Entered My Mind.”
Russ: Which we both loved and we wanted to have on the record, but I guess it just didn’t fit. But we have three versions of it, and all of them are really good.
Michael: I was looking for that track because I saw your description of it, but I couldn’t find it.
Rickie: Well, we’re putting one out. You know, the Japanese always wanna have a special bonus track. They get a special track, but then we’ll have two others that will eventually unfold, and all three of them are really …
Russ: Beautiful. That was another experience that I was so thrilled with. Rickie started to do overdubs and she’d go, “Oh, give me a track.” And she’d go out and put a part down, and then another one, and then another one. And then, all of a sudden, this choir appears that also comes from outer space. It’s not like anybody else’s approach to putting a vocal group on the thing. It’s just from another planet. And, and then it would just happen, you know? The only other time I ever experienced anything like that was when I worked with Brian Wilson and he had an idea for something, and he said, “Give me a track.” And Milton Nascimento, too.
Rickie: Well, how could you not do great work with a person like this listening and appreciating everything that you do?
Russ: Stay out of her …
Rickie: Way. Like the photographer.
Michael: I think in, in the annals of recording — I’m sticking my neck out a little bit — this is Rickie and Russ’ Kind of Blue. This is the album that people are gonna listen to for years and say, “There’s just something about the vibe of this album that I’m just gonna put on every time I feel in that mood.”
Russ: Good. What a compliment.
Rickie: That’s our job. Yay.
Michael: Well, thank you for putting it all down on the record for us to enjoy.
Rickie: We have a little list for a possible other one. We’ll see what happens. Maybe we can do it a little bit different. Um, but the same.
Russ: Yeah, it’s not in your nature to do the same thing twice. [laughs]
Featured photo by Vivian Wang.