Sinatra to Hendrix. Tin Pan Alley to swinging hepster jazz. “Peter Pan” to the Jefferson Airplane.
You could say Rickie Lee Jones really boxes the pop compass on “Pop Pop,” the upcoming album by the adventuresome songstress. Due out in September, it features a dizzying array of cover songs, ranging from jazz standards and Broadway show tunes to Jimi Hendrix’s “Up From the Skies” and a trio of songs that were hits for Frank Sinatra.
“Jazz singing is the most exclusive club in the world,” says the record’s producer David Weiss, better known as David Was of rock’s Was (Not Was) duo. “And frankly, I think Rickie’s been a latent jazz singer all these years--she just finally came out of the closet. She really gets inside these tunes. She’s like a pop Billie Holiday.”
To hear Weiss tell it, he was almost fated to join forces with Jones, whom he’d met only briefly in the past. “I was dying to do the album with her, so we scheduled a dinner out in the Valley. I had an hour to kill, so I stopped in at Tower Records on Sunset--and there was Rickie! The hour we ended up killing together locked us in. We were in sync after that.”
Using old tube microphones and recording Jones’ vocals live, Weiss had seven songs in the can after the first week, using a skeleton crew of musicians, including guitarist Robben Ford, bassist Charlie Haden, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson and button accordionist Dino Asluzzi. “We tried to get Miles Davis to play trumpet,” Weiss explains. “But his people told us his price tag was $25,000 a song, so for that money I figured we could get Freddie Hubbard, which we did--but then he didn’t show up.”
Weiss says that Jones--whom he calls Professor--insisted that the album be a low-tech, all-acoustic affair. “She was even concerned about using vibes on one track because she thought they’d be too amplified,” says Weiss. “But you don’t need strings with Rickie. She’s the orchestra.”
The album teams Jones with such songwriting stalwarts as Sammy Cahn (“Second Time Around”), Oscar Brown Jr. (“Dat Dere”), Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal (“I’ll Be Seeing You”), Ray Henderson and Mort Dixon (“Bye Bye Blackbird”) as well as the Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin (“Coming Back to Me”) and Hendrix.
In the studio, every song was an adventure. Jones’ Django Reinhardt-style “Up From the Skies,” for example, was a total fluke. One night, just before Jones was due to leave for Italy, she was in the studio, hanging around, when guitarist Michael O’Neil started fooling around with a Hendrix guitar figure.
“No one could remember the lyrics, so Robben Ford called his wife, who recited them to us over the phone,” Weiss recalls. “Then Rickie Lee just went out and killed it. The whole thing really swings--it’s like she was doing an unconscious Mose Allison riff.”
With Natalie Cole’s collection of Nat King Cole cover songs No. 1 on the Billboard charts, the time might be right for another album that breathes fresh life into jazz and show-tune standards. Although Jones’ career has been in eclipse in recent years, “Pop Pop” could help her reach a broader legion of older pop fans, the generation of aging baby-boomers who have little interest in today’s outrageous rap and rock warriors.
“I hope it works, because Rickie is an original,” says Weiss, who is planning a solo album of his own after he makes another Was (Not Was) record later this year. “Sometimes, she’d paint herself in the corner with a certain phrasing and instead of just going back to the melody, she’d find a unique way out. When she’s attacking a song, she’s like a musical version of Muhammad Ali, doing the rope-a-dope to win every new fight.”