Ever since Linda Ronstadt bravely took on the Great American Songbook with three albums back in 1983, pop singers with a rock background have taken on the classics of the first half of the 20th century and reinterpreted them for contemporary audiences. When Ronstadt sang them with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, critics considered the act revolutionary. Rock originated as a rebellion against the mainstream pop of the 1950s. Now rock was dissenting from what it had become by embracing what it had campaigned against. Artists as varied as the once vulgar Rod Stewart (remember songs such as “You’re So Rude” from A Nod Is as Good as a Wink?) and anti-authoritarian as Bob Dylan have gone on to release multi-volume collections of smooth standards.
Now it’s Rickie Lee Jones‘ turn. As one might expect, she does it coolsville style with a jazz combo. She makes the songs her own through her combination of little girl style and wizened woman narration. When Jones sings, her vocals tell a story through her intonations as well as through the lyrics. At times, she makes one put down the whiskey and grab the cigarette from the ashtray as she wistfully recalls “There Will Never Be Another You”. In other songs, such as “It’s All in the Game”, the opposite is true. Listening to the singer’s sadness makes one want to reach for a drink.
Russ Titelman, who co-produced Jones’ 1979 self-titled debut (and her second record, Pirates), helms this production. But this is no retro album or exercise in 1970s nostalgia. The music and style are very different than it used to be. Titleman assembled a small jazz combo (Rob Mounsey on piano, guitarist Russell Malone, bassist David Wong, and drummer Mark McLean) to back Jones and let her vocals breathe. More importantly, to let the songs move in a metropolitan air where the spaces between sounds are as significant as the instruments themselves. There is a spareness to the arrangements that conveys urbane refinement. The music was recorded at Sear Sound during a five-day stint in New York City and sounds as sophisticated as the city that never sleeps.
Even the rural connotations of “Nature Boy” come across as cosmopolitan, thanks to Ara Dinkjian’s lead oud playing. The instrumental introduction situates Jones’ intonations about “the strange, enchanted boy” into something transcendent. The singer’s declaration that love is the secret of life makes perfect sense in this context.
Love is the primary topic of songs from the Great American Songbook, whether it’s the lack of it (i.e., “One for the Road”) or that it redeems (“Just in Time”), or how it’s the end all / be all (“All the Way”) or the memories of it (“They Can’t Take That Away From Me”). Jones croons about love with sweetness but never gushes too sentimentally. Her persona suggests that she’s always in control, even when she sings about being out of control.
Maybe that’s just a function of age. When she croons, “Here’s That Rainy Day”, she doesn’t seem upset about her fate (being alone) as much as accepting her destiny. The same is true of the opposite side of the coin. The young narrator of “On the Sunny Side of the Street” extols life’s positive virtues. You can feel the singer leaving her troubles at the door and walking down the avenue with a big smile on her face.
Jones’ ability to be both old and young makes her rendition of “September Song” compelling. She can identify with each lover of a May/December romance, no matter what age. Jones is a pirate who plunders the treasures of the Great American Songbook for all of its riches. The music is as timeless as she is.