There’s a lot to be said for mystery, its appeal and uses, and throughout her career Rickie Lee Jones has embodied it even while seeming to reveal her internal monologues. That’s given her rare cachet among singers and composers, especially those sensitive to her jazzy sensibilities.
Listen to her singing on early career singles like “Chuck E.’s in Love” and more recent forays like 2003’s politically inspired “The Evening of My Best Day” or 2009’s splendid, inwardly focused “Balm in Gilead.” Her melismatic twists and moans resemble not at all the melodrama of pop divas but instead bear the emotional directness of soul and a jazz stylist’s interpretive elegance. She never loses the beat, and she resists pop formulas.
Jones has a treasure chest of stories to plumb. A near homeless waitress in Venice before her drunken mid-’70s exploits with then-paramour Tom Waits and Chuck E. Weiss made them all the stuff of LA legend, Jones’ self-titled 1979 debut thrust her into the seemingly unreachable world of radio play, “Saturday Night Live” and magazine covers, Grammy Awards and pop stardom. After writing and recording 1981’s transcendent “Pirates” (which NPR recently ranked in its list of “150 Greatest Albums Made By Women”), Jones retreated to Paris for a while, struggling with various demons. By the time she made 1989’s “Flying Cowboys” with Steely Dan’s Walter Becker in the producer’s chair, industry wags were tossing around the “c” word: “comeback.”
In her wrenching Rolling Stone memorial to Becker this September, Jones wrote, “I loved the innuendo, the humor, the sting. The genius was as much in the part we filled in, the lines they didn’t write.” Her loving description of Steely Dan’s music applies to her own. Jones was and remains an artist of the old school, one who’s charted an idiosyncratic course through deeply musical collections of original material and jazz and pop covers. The youthful street savvy of the “Duchess of Coolsville” has been supplanted by wiser vision; if she doesn’t directly address the better angels of our collective nature, in recent years she has emphasized higher planes of thought and spiritual questing.
Not everything satisfies. 1997’s “Ghostyhead” and 2007’s inconsistent “The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard” fell short of the richer dimensions of other albums, the only evident motivation for 2012’s morbid rock covers set “The Devil You Know” was payday, and “raw” has sometimes been a polite euphemism for incomprehensibly sloppy singing. But four decades into her career, Jones is no longer defined by individual albums but by a body of work that still tantalizes.
An Intimate Evening With Rickie Lee Jones at the Rose in Paseo Colorado, 254 E. Green St., Pasadena, at 9 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12; $28-$48. Doors open at 6 p.m. Box office: (888) 645-5006. Rickieleejones.com, wheremusicmeetsthesoul.com